Stories change us, and scientists are starting to understand why…
Long ones. Short ones. Hidden ones… We know stories work hard and achieve a lot in communication. Here’s some of the science that tells us why.
Making sense of ourselves and each other
It seems we are hard-wired to be drawn to stories – particularly stories about people. This suggests they play an important evolutionary role (Barnes & Bloom, 2013), teaching us how to build empathic connections with people (Tversky et al., 2013), while helping us to develop values and refine our sense of who we are (Kadembo, 2012).
Inevitably, of course, stories are also a key part of organizational sense-making (Boje, 2008). They shape how we perceive our roles, how we view colleagues (and the leadership), and how we respond to specific instances of organisational change (Brown et al., 2009; Whittle et al, 2009).
Helping us to understand – and remember
Equally, it has been shown that stories are a significant aid to memory and retention, while devices like metaphors allow a greater depth of understanding in a short space of time, creating vivid pictures in our minds, and helping us to express intangible concepts (Andrew Ortony, 1993).
Why is this? Building on Ricoeur’s (1975) theory of ‘live metaphor’, Letiche, Kuiper & Houweling (2011) show how metaphors (as words, sentences or stories), carry meaning from one place to another, such as from the environment to consciousness, or from one person to another. Metaphors are the ‘living’ component of a story, juxtaposed against ‘dead’ data, which is conventional, dry, ‘factual’, and not an active carrier of significance.
Shifting the emotional (and physical) states of others
Something we have also known through the ages is that telling stories (in words, pictures or sounds) is a great way to shift the emotional, and even the physical, state of others. For example, Cherulnik et al. (2001) found that when a charismatic speaker expresses strong emotion, observers were quick to adopt similar facial expressions. Before long, they start to experience the emotions themselves.
Berns et al. (2013) explained why this should be, when they asked nineteen volunteers to spend a few evenings reading Pompeii (by Robert Harris) at the same pace as each other. fMRI scans the next morning showed changes in subjects’ ‘somatosensory cortex connectivity’ after a story. This drives neural activity that is associated with bodily sensations, meaning that we feel physical responses when we listen to a story. And because the change is fairly stable, the sensation can live on in our systems for some time.
Priming: stories put our brains in a state of open exploration
Perhaps most importantly, when it comes to the long-lasting effects of a story, Berns found evidence of stable changes in ‘resting-state neural connectivity’, particularly in parts of the brain associated with how we make sense of language, and how we see things from new and fresh perspectives. This means that a story is capable of putting our brains in an agile state of exploration that will remain in the neural networks for some time, affecting your next interactions with the world. At its simplest, if we are inspired by what we hear in a story, we are more likely to find inspiration in our future interactions with the world. This is the lasting power of a good story.
• Barnes, J. L., & Bloom, P. (2013). Children’s Preference for Social Stories. Developmental Psychology (Advance online publication).
• Berns, G. S., Blaine, K., Prietula, M. J., & Pye, B. E. (2013). Short-and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain connectivity, 3(6), 590-600
• Boje, D. M. (2008). Storytelling organizations. London: Sage
• Cherulnik, P. D., Donley, K. A., Wiewel, T. S. R., & Miller, S. R. (2001). Charisma Is Contagious: The Effect of Leaders’ Charisma on Observers’ Affect. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(10), 2149-2159.
• Tversky, B., Heiser, J., & Morrison, J. (2013). Space, time, and story. In B. H. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol 58, 47-76). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press
• Brown, A. D., Gabriel, Y., & Gherardi, S. (2009). Storytelling and change: an unfolding story. Organization, 16(3), 323-333
• Whittle, A., Mueller, F., & Mangan, A. (2009). Storytelling and ‘Character’: Victims, Villains and Heroes in a Case of Technological Change. Organization,16(3), 425-442.
• Kadembo, E. M. (2012). Anchored in the story: The core of human understanding, branding, education, socialisation and the shaping of values. Marketing Review, 12(3), 221-231