What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains

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In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich used a lot of his free time for playing cards. One of the problems he had was that he greatly enjoyed eating a snack, whilst still keeping one hand free for the cards.

So he came up with the idea to eat beef between slices of toast, which would allow him to finally eat and play cards at the same time. Eating his newly invented “sandwich”, the name for 2 slices of bread with meat in between, became one of the most popular meal inventions in the western world.

What’s interesting about this, is that you are very likely to never forget the story of who invented the sandwich ever again. Or at least, much less likely to do so, if it would have been presented to us in bullet points or other purely information based form.

For over 27,000 years, since the first cave paintings were discovered, telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods. Since recently a good friend of mine, gave me an introduction to the power of storytelling, I wanted to learn more.

Here is the science around storytelling and how we can use it to make better decisions every day:

Our brain on stories: How our brains become more active when we tell stories

We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us that they’ve experienced. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events?

It’s in fact quite simple. If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story though, things change dramatically found researchers in Spain. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain, that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up, if it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active:

“Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex. […] Then, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.”

A story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better:

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized.  When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas that you’ve activated that way, active too:

 

Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling – how to make use of it

Now all this is interesting. We know that we can activate our brains better if we listen to stories. The still unanswered question is: Why is that? Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other have such a profound impact on our learning?

The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think.

We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found:

“Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. Whilst we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, disgust or else.

The following graphic probably describes it best:

In a great experiment, John Bargh at Yale found the following:

“Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.”

We link up metaphors and literal happenings automatically. Everything in our brain is looking for the cause and effect relationship of something we’ve previously experienced.

Let’s dig into some hands on tips to make use of it:

3 Awesome ways to use storytelling in every day life

  • Make others come up with your idea: Exchange telling suggestions for telling stories: 

Do you know the feeling, when a good friend tells you a story and then two weeks later, you mention the same story to him, as if it was your idea? This is totally normal and at the same time, one of the most powerful ways to get people on board with your ideas and thoughts. According to Uri Hasson from Princeton, a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.

The next time you struggle with getting people on board with your projects and ideas, simply tell them a story, where the outcome is that doing what you had in mind, is the best thing to do. According to Princeton researcher Hasson, storytelling is the only way to plant ideas into other people’s minds.

  • Write more persuasively – bring in stories from yourself or an expert: 

This is something that took me a long time to understand. If you start out writing, it’s only natural to think “I don’t have a lot of experience with this, how can I make my post believable if I use personal stories?”. The best way to get around this is by simply exchanging stories to those of experts. When this blog used to be a social media blog, I would ask for quotes from the top folks in the industry or simply find great passages they had written online. It’s a great way to add credibility and at the same time, tell a story.

  • The simple story is more successful than the complicated one: 

When we think of stories, it is often easy to convince ourselves that they have to be complex and detailed to be interesting. The truth is however, that the simpler a story, the more likely it will stick. Using simple language as well as a low complexity is the best way to activate the brain regions that make us truly relate to the situation and happenings in the story. This is a similar reason to why multitasking is so hard for us. Try for example to reduce the number adjectives or complicated nouns in a presentation or article and exchange them with more simple, yet heartfelt language.

 

Quick last fact: Our brain learns to ignore certain overused words and phrases that used to make stories awesome

Oh and one last thing. Scientists, in the midst of researching the topic of storytelling have also discovered, that certain words and phrases have lost all storytelling power:

“Some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more.”

This means, that the frontal cortex – the area of your brain responsible to experience emotions, can’t be activated with these phrases. It’s something that might be worth remembering when crafting your next story.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful techniques we have as humans to communicate and motivate. What are your best tips for telling stories? Have you had similar experiences with telling stories? I’d love your thoughts on this topic in the comments.

Photo credit: Nytimes

About the Author

Leo Widrich

Co-founder and CMO at Buffer. I enjoy writing about lifehacks, social media tips and updates to Buffer. For some more personal posts, check out leostartsup.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    This post is freaking fantastic. Thank you!

    • LeoWid

      glad to hear it Alex! :)

  • http://twitter.com/thinkdevcode Eugene Alfonso

    Excellent post

    • LeoWid

      awesome! :)

  • http://twitter.com/John4man John Foreman

    Great post. It’s what I’ve been going for with AnalyticsMadeSkeezy.com, using engaging stories while teaching dry math.

    • LeoWid

      awesome idea!

  • MT LaCour

    “Tell them a story and keep it simple”. Got it! Excellent!

    • LeoWid

      yep, the “keep it simple” is the hard part :)

  • abdullasyed

    Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/TheStoryFactor Annette Simmons

    I’m so grateful for people like you who share new research. I didn’t know about the study in Spain. And I love the phrase, “make others come up with your ideas.” Thank you!

    • LeoWid

      Hi Annette, so glad the article was interesting for you! :)

  • Luis Goncalves

    Awesome post :)

  • http://twitter.com/mgwitham Michael Witham

    I like this idea of content…reminds me of http://www.learningnerd.com/

  • http://theIdeaMechanic.com/ theIdeaMechanic

    Thanks to Michael Kimsal (http://michaelkimsal.com) for pointing me to your post. I couldn’t agree more; our brains are wired for stories.

    Pick up a copy of Dan Roam’s book “The Back of the Napkin”, look at page 128 and read Appendix B “The Science of Visual Thinking.” While Roam is promoting visual problem solving (hence the back of the napkin angle), he does a great job at helping you “get” why we get stories.

    I wish someone had taught me back in Engineering school that those words (who, what, when, where, why, how, & how much) were the keys to the universe. The last 30 years would have been much easier. Excellent post!

    • LeoWid

      So awesome to hear it and I’ll definitely take a look at Dan Roam’s book, this sounds super interesting!

  • Russ

    Storytelling has been one of my weaknesses, and lately I’ve been looking for ways to improve it. This article provoked some insights for me. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/patrickdaly16 Patrick Daly

    I’ve always said, “tell me a good story and I’ll pay attention.” This is similar to the use of analogies, by putting the concept into the context of a situation that’s more easily grasped and can more easily be remembered.

    • LeoWid

      exactly! Thanks for stopping by Patrick. :)

  • Bryan

    Good stuff!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1024509133 Ryoma Machida

    Great post Leo! I like and remember Garry V’s keynotes as he always tells us his story although he repeat the same story. Same for buffer team, I tell my friends about Buffer and your new way of work as you guys always share the story in your blog and video (recently). Thanks!

    • LeoWid

      thanks a lot for the kind words Ryoma, really glad you are liking the videos, more to come soon. And yes, if there is anyone we can learn storytelling from, it’s Gary V! :)

      • Anbea

        Thanks for the great post Leo! I just wonder – who is this Garry V and his keynotes? I have just started to learn about storytelling…

  • https://www.bucketlistly.com/ Pete Rojwongsuriya

    This post is another example of great storytelling right here. :)

    • LeoWid

      thanks Pete! :)

      • http://managedformimi.com/ osbennn

        Totally — nothing but respect for the content curation toolmakers’ content about the power of content!

  • http://www.raymondduke.com/ Raymond Duke

    Once upon a time I came across the powerful nature of storytelling, and since then, I have lived happily ever after knowing that storytelling is one of the greatest treasures of life.

    • LeoWid

      nicely said! :)

      • http://www.raymondduke.com/ Raymond Duke

        Thanks.

        • elSmartAss

          actually, i felt nothing reading your comment. “once upon a time” .. “powerful” .. “happily ever after” .. “greatest treasures” .. all those words are played out, brother. sorry, you’re a bad storyteller.

          • http://raymondduke.com/ Raymond Duke

            Sorry I couldn’t make you feel better with my comment.

          • ToolCritic

            He was making a joke, using obviously cliche phrases common in fairy and folk tales. Its a reference that anyone would get and put a smile on my face. Maybe you should stop and think for a second before posting snarky comments that show his sentence(not story as you incorrectly stated) obviously made you feel enough to take the time to reply.

            Also except for “powerful” your listed quotations are phrases not words.

          • Drewster

            OK… see, now I’m confused as to who is the Comments Troll here. elSmartAss and ToolCritic both put forward compelling evidence. Oh I give up! This interwebs thing is way to complicated for me…

  • http://twitter.com/Entangld Tarik

    I heard Leo speak earlier this week at a Meetup. Nothing but good advice.

    • LeoWid

      awesome to meet you Tarik, thanks for the kind words! :)

  • http://twitter.com/vrish88 Michael Lavrisha

    Lincoln is, perhaps, one of the most effective storytellers I have heard about: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/lincoln-tells-a-story/

  • Brennan Young

    A good article, but this is not really ‘news’. It’s just that the new neurological data is supporting what good teachers, magicians, hypnotists, confidence tricksters, and military, spiritual and political leaders have known for thousands of years.

    Storytelling isn’t just a good way to communicate ideas, it’s the *primary* way that humanity has done it (at least until the invention of the western school system). I’m a teacher, and make efforts to use stories in class as much as possible. I flirted with powerpoint for a year, but gave up because it just isn’t as effective. Neither is it much fun. Now I prefer to turn the screen off and engage directly with my students through storytelling.

    We may note that storytelling is central to most of the world’s religions. Indeed most religious texts are stories rather than “bullet points”. It’s rather obvious that they have enormous persuasive power, in spite of the many contradictions which can usually be found inside. (Usually the more controversial parts of religious texts are the parts which are not stories).

    Check out Idries Shah, who has written extensively about the power of storytelling (from a Sufi perspective). Also the great therapist Milton Erickson is well worth your time. (“My voice will go with you” is a fantastic collection of healing stories).

    And definitely check out Gregory Bateson’s work on metaphor. Evolution itself is a story, the developing embryo is a story, even our genetic material is a story, which tells about what we are, and what we can become. The cell nucleus ‘tells’ the rest of the cell what to do by telling stories in the form of RNA strings with beginnings, middles and ends. Listen to frog calls or bird song. It’s storytelling. (Usually it’s a story about how horny the creature is, or how they’ll bash you if you trespass on their patch). Geology too is a science full of stories. These kinds of stories make life not just meaningful but possible.

    Life itself, therefore, is a vast complex tangled hierarchy of stories. We should not be surprised that neurological research now indicates it is a superior way to communicate.

    • roundand

      May I also recommend Lakoff and Johnson’s “Metaphors we live by”, which completely completely changed my views on the centrality of metaphor to thought and language.

  • Kazmyhre Florendo

    I have learned a lot from this post! Great story-telling! I’ll make sure to use powerpoint presentation with some story-telling to let people absorb what I have presented. :)

    ~ security system

  • Toby Downton

    Another great post Joel, nice one! I’ve been interested in the power of story telling for a while now and can recommend a couple of fascinating books on the subject. The first is:

    Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck
    by brothers Dan and Chip Heath

    It starts with the “a guy wakes up in a bath and reads a note saying his kidney has been removed” story (which we all know), and goes on to provide a very useful list of ways in which we can make information memorable. Here’s the list:

    Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, Stories

    (Which makes the acronym SUCCES).

    I can also recommend Making Your Idea Matter: Stand out with a better story by Bernadette Jiwa. At £2 (for the kindle edition) it would be rude not to buy it immediately.

    I look forward to the next chapter in the Buffer story!

    • http://www.victorasemota.com/ Victor Asemota

      Seems you mixed up Joel with Leo. I had to check again to be sure :)

      • Toby Downton

        So I did! Leo – please accept my apologies…!

  • Stephen

    Hi Leo,

    I love all the info on story telling. It makes me think about some of the best communicators I have been around. They could get people into the story so well that people would want to follow them around and the would get the results that they wanted.

    I especially liked the idea that “Our brain learns to ignore certain overused words and phrases that used to make stories awesome”. That is why we have an distaste for “cliques”

    • Pedant

      cliches?

      • Stephen

        oops! You can edit if you like.

  • trans

    Thank you for this. I have many ideas but have always found it difficult to convince people of their merits. They seem so obvious to me, but others tend to just stare at me with a blank expression. I will try to adjust my approach with story telling elements and see if it helps.

  • Sam Reeves

    appreciate this post… encourages me to use and further develop story telling in my writing thanks agian..

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  • http://twitter.com/jessikalawaaij jessika de waijer

    great story

  • http://monetizing-website.com/ Zouras

    Hi Leo!

    Really valuable post! Thank you very much! Personally I know that storytelling is a powerful technique to build trust and to make your visitors not only to think but also to have some emotional reactions! Everyday storytelling takes place in TV,youtube,businesses and generally speaking in life!

    Thank you,
    Zouras

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    oh gosh, science up to its distancing tricks again .. in order to explain the truly inexplicable, science gets out its measuring sticks … story is something else, nothing to do with measurement

  • Sushil Krishna

    Excellent post i ever have gone through. so genuine that almost at every point of reading we feel yeah …we feel/encounter daily in our life. we start life or knowing the world from the stories itself from the very childhood and by going through this post we can assure that heights can also be achieved in life by following this course of storytelling & listening.
    Thanks Leo to enlighten us..!

  • Esteban

    Matthew 13:34 Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables.

    • Adele Browne

      Yes! Because our brains are wired for story; the human brain cannot encode a memory unless we can sequence an event into beginning, middle, end.
      And with a parable, each person makes the story his own. To my way of thinking, Jesus was extremely intuitive as a human being with inside information from His supernatural side.
      Whenever a Moral is appended to the end of a story, I think about how each
      of us relates to a story according to our needs and experience, as to a parable,
      and to feed someone the meaning is to demean the intelligence of that person.
      As a storyteller, I like to let the listener’s brain do the work of identifying with the story.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lonniebos Lonnie Bos

    a friend of mine just did his Master’s thesis on the use of story telling in teaching science- addressing many of the same issues described here..he’s found that to stimulate creative approaches in science, the use of stories with students is extremely effective

  • Ruxandra

    Excellent post! I think more storytelling should be included in school curricula. It would make it easier for kids to learn more in less time.

  • http://twitter.com/christinelarade Christine Larade

    The science behind storytelling! I love this content. Super cool.

  • Ivan Pagan III

    This is one of the best post I’ve read in a while! Brilliant! I’m sure this is going to help me

  • Amanda Smith

    Overall I liked your post though I think it is a mistake to use storytelling to manipulate, as once in rapport through engaging people in storytelling you will also activate more clearly a listener’s inner widsom. They will be onto you and then you will never recover the trust. The true art in storytelling is giving people the conditions to choose. Amanda Smith, Storyteller

  • http://twitter.com/bookloversgifts Anne

    This is great. I like that our most natural way of sharing information is also the most effective.

  • http://learnit2earnitwithlynn.com Lynn Brown

    This is an excellent article and makes some great points on why storytelling is so important in connecting with people. I took away some great tips especially about the overused words and how we ignore them. Looking forward to sharing this article with others.

  • http://crazydreamersdo.com/ Susan Daniels

    Hmmm…I’ve tried story telling but it always seems like my biography which I think is boring so it comes across as dry and boring. Maybe I should try stretching my imagination a little bit…I need story-telling suggestions! Warmly, Susan

  • http://blog.L3Success.com/ The MLM Leads Maker

    Love it Leo! Being an analytical guy, it is great to know there is an actual “science” involved with storytelling. Recently, I have implemented storytelling into my blog posts, and I am looking at trying to include this same strategy into my videos. This article definitely is a great tool for understanding how to better implement this strategy. Thanks!!!

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  • Doreen Stern

    An ah-ha moment. As I read this article, I could feel parts of my brain lighting up in understanding. Cause and effect, that’s what our brains crave, with enough sensory information to penetrate deeply. How to do it is the question for me as a writer.

  • steledge1

    I knew there was something special about story telling but couldn’t put my finger on it. It is amazing the impact it has. Still remember many stories from early childhood.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=201942 facebook-201942

    Great post, Leo! The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall is a great book for folks who are interested in the subject: http://www.amazon.com/Storytelling-Animal-Stories-Make-Human/dp/0547391404

    • Olya

      thank you Tommy!

  • Olya

    Hi Leo,
    Thank you for your post ! Is there any book you could recommend on the subject ? Thanks !
    Olya

  • Neil Salowitz

    I’ve been a professional storyteller for many years, and have a consulting practice in the areas of speech writing and delivery coaching and presentation training. I teach people how to use stories and storytelling techniques to inspire, entertain and pursuade. There is NOTHING as powerful as stories to convey information and to encourage people to act.

    Neil Salowitz, The Ovation Effect (www.theovationeffect.com)

  • http://twitter.com/GunterSoydanbay Günter Soydanbay

    This is a fantastic article. With your permission, I linked it back to one of my articles regarding the relationship between storytelling and branding.

    I am happy to see that more and more people are understanding the invaluable role of storytelling in brand management. Even better, the eternal narratives – archetypes are being used more often.

    For those interested, here is one of the articles about branding and storytelling: http://soydanbay.com/2011/06/30/branding-through-storytelling/#comment-1348

  • -smiley

    If you are seeking a new and different explanation of the truth that makes sense, search for “Truth Contest” in Google and click the 1st result, then click on “The Present” and read what it says. This is truth you can check.

    What it says will turn this world around if it reaches enough people.

    You will see what I mean when you read the first page.

  • Gill

    I don’t follow the Neural Coupling Model image…can you explain further? What do the numbers mean? Also, the ‘listener’ does not look human… :)

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  • Beth

    So glad to see this information become mainstream! I’ve been a storyteller for 15 years, using story to entertain, to educate, and to heal. The most difficult truths can be shared in a story, and it truly those stories that connect us at a heart level and allow us to share our humanity. Roger Schank’s “Tell Me a Story” gives an in-depth look at how the brain responds to story, and an open 12 Step meeting will demonstrate just that. Twelve Step fellowships have been using personal stories to help others recover from alcohol and drug addiction. Best kept secret on the planet is the power of story. Spread the word!
    Beth Ohlsson

  • Misha Sharma

    Its an art to be able to tell stories and its a magical experience to listen to one. so this summer I am reading stories to underprivileged kids in my locality through MangoT20 . you can check out the link n know more and maybe join in too http://www.mangot20.org

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  • Fairytale2013

    This is a very interesting article and I’ve enjoyed it , thank you! I use stories a lot in business presentations, business pitches (at the words “Once upon a time” the room always falls silent) Stories are the core part of my business where I design furniture the children can play with and write a story book for every piece of furniture. Telling stories and listening to stories is the greatest pleasure. Taffy Thomas said giving a story is the best gift. If you give wine it is drunk, if you give chocolates they are eaten, but if you give a story they have it for ever and often give you a story in return.

    Zandra Johnson http://www.fairytalechildrensfurniture.co.uk

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  • http://unneuron.ro/ David Emanuel Oprea

    I’ve found a Free course at @iversity about the Future Of Storytelling. What about? https://iversity.org/c/6?r=01fef

  • ID

    Very interesting, many thanks.

  • Sam

    Very interesting read.Now that have read it, makes a lot of sense. We are a small florist business. How can we make stories around a florist, in blogs, f/b posts & tweets to attract more customers?? Pleased to hear. Appreciate.

  • Giles Lury

    check out http://www.theprisonerandthepenguin.com or the book of the same name for a selection of brand stories that should activate your brain

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  • Deri Latimer

    Wow, Leo — I love how simply and effectively you have demonstrated how storytelling affects our brains. I use stories all the time in my keynote speaking – and they are ALWAYS what people remember about my talk. Thank you for this most lovely reminder!

  • Katherine Bryant

    Tell me a fact and I will learn. Tell me the truth and I will believe. Tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever. Indian Proverb

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    Love this!

  • http://senatorclub.co/ Ian Adams

    Hey Leo – I am seriously impressed how you built such a large audience through guest posting. It’s because you use stories throughout your writing, just as you discuss above. Congrats man!

  • Ed Underwood

    “Tell someone what to do and you change their life–for a day. Tell someone a story and you change their life.” NT Wright

  • Massim0Marin0

    Great article, Leo. But remember, good storytelling goes with “Show, don’t tell” :)