The Science of Stories: How Stories Impact Our Brains

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When was the last time you got lost in a story? Perhaps you sat down to read “just one chapter” of a book and grew completely absorbed, spending three or four hours buried in the pages without realizing it. Perhaps you tuned into a podcast on your morning walk and became so engrossed you went on autopilot, finding yourself back at home without quite knowing how you got there. Or maybe you lost yourself in a movie, heart racing, tears flowing, breath caught in your throat right along with the characters.

Whatever the format, there’s no denying that a well-told story has a powerful impact on its audience. In fact, there’s an oft-cited statistic claiming that messages delivered as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than just the facts.

So why is that?

We’ve written about the power of storytelling before—about how stories act as pneumonic devices for facts, engage our emotions, and even transport us (figuratively, at least) to different worlds.

But now, let’s dive deeper and take a look at the science behind the power of stories.

Your Brain on Stories

When we hear good stories, two changes occur in our brains: one is neurological and one is chemical.

When we hear straight facts, two areas of our brains light up: language processing and language comprehension. But when we listen to stories, neural activity increases fivefold—we’re using our motor cortexes and our emotion and visual image processing centers, we’re imagining sensations, and we’re processing emotional reactions. What this means is that more of our brains are at work, so we’re more focused on the story and more likely to retain it later.

At the chemical level, when we hear stories, our brains release oxytocin, the bonding hormone that causes us to really care about the people involved. This is why we sometimes treat our favorite fictional characters as real people, why sharing personal stories is the fastest way to bond with strangers, and why storytelling is a politician’s best weapon. Not only are we hearing about somebody’s experience, but we’re living it right along with them. The more of their experience we share, the more oxytocin is released, and the more likely we are to internalize that story and think about it later.

Take one company’s much-anticipated Super Bowl commercials, for example. Traditionally, they feature some combination of Clydesdales and dogs that is sure to turn even the most heartless viewer into a sniveling mess. In its 2018 ad, the company told a similarly emotional story of its dedication to providing water to the areas affected by the long string of recent natural disasters.

If this company were simply reciting facts about itself, you probably would’ve half listened while you thought about twelve other things, and you might remember that it was…some beer or another. But thanks to the stories it tells in its ads every year, you recall its name right off the bat: Budweiser.

Bringing Stories into the Workplace

Now that you have a sense of what it is that makes stories so powerful, let’s take a look at how you can wield that power in your professional life.

Your next financial presentation isn’t exactly Oscar material, and your quarterly progress report is far from the Great American Novel, but that doesn’t mean they have to be dull, dry recitations of facts. Think about how you can wrap your key points into short narratives by introducing the inspiration behind a new corporate policy, the team members that stepped up and made a difference in a recent initiative, and the efforts that led to your success (or failure).

When you package it as a story, your audience will be able to put themselves in your shoes, connecting with your message on a personal, emotional level that will make them more likely to remember what you had to say, buy in to your ideas, and perceive you favorably.

So next time you have to deliver a dull, complicated, or controversial message, look for a way to turn it into a story. And if all else fails, follow Budweiser’s example, and incorporate puppies.