We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. Why are we so engaged when we hear a good narrative about events or persons?
It’s, in fact, quite simple. If we listen to a discussion or a powerpoint presentation, 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.
On the other hand, when we are being told a story, things change dramatically. 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,” writes Australian author Leo Widrich in LifeHacker, a weblog site.
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” activates the sensory cortex. A story can put our whole brain to work. 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 synchronise, confirms Uri Hasson, a researcher from Princeton University.
In an experiment, when the woman narrated her story, the volunteers understood her story and their brains synchronised. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners also had it. 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.”
Using the power of a story, we can get others also experience anything that we experienced ourselves. When the narrator and the listener have the same brain areas activated, they feel really connected. A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect, writes Widrich. And that is exactly how we think. We think in narratives, no matter if it is about buying groceries, our job or our success. We make up short stories in our heads for every action and conversation. That is simply because our brain is wired to listen to stories or perceive cause and effect. That is why, Jeremy Hsu, a researcher from Stanford University, found that “personal stories and gossip make up 65 per cent of our conversations”.
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. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate the insula area in the brain, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy or disgust. This happens to most people: a good friend tells us a story and then two weeks later, we mention the same story to him, as if it was our idea! This is totally normal. It shows that this is one of the most powerful ways to get people on board with your ideas and thoughts. According to Uri Hasson, “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.” Hasson sums it up, “Storytelling is the only way to plant ideas into other people’s minds.”
We need to realise that as human beings, we are all part of the larger story of the universe and of living beings. Our spiritual quest is part of the interconnected and shared story that makes our lives significant.
(The writer is a professor of science and religion)
Kuruvilla Pandikattu