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The Science of Storytelling

Dating back to the cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic era over 40,000 years ago, storytelling has been one of our most fundamental methods of communication.

Stories are how we connect with our friends and families. They open the door to connection with complete strangers. They humanize us and help us relate to each other in ways that simple words or data cannot. Peter Guber, author of Tell to Win, has said, “To move somebody, you have to say to yourself: ‘I’m in the emotional transportation business.’ The portal into people’s hearts is being interested in them.”

People love to tell stories and people love to hear stories, and there is no better example than Humans of New York. In 2010, as part of a photography project, founder Brandon Stanton began photographing everyday people on New York City Streets. He listened to their stories and published them alongside their photograph on a blog. The blog became a phenomenon, and today Humans of New York has roughly 25 million social media followers and publishes stories and pictures from a myriad of countries and societal subsections. People connect to it because the stories draw them in and engage them.

It’s a Science

Why are people so drawn to stories? Uri Hasson, a Princeton professor of psychology and neuroscience, has spent considerable time studying the brain to answer that very question.

How Storytelling Affects the Brain

Hasson conducted a study wherein a woman told a story while in an MRI scanner, in order to detect brain activity. A group then listened to the stories while they also had their brains scanned. When the woman told her story, their brains synchronized. The study revealed that, “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.” Alternatively, if we listen to a presentation that is primarily data-driven, only the Broca and Wernicke areas of the brain are activated, which are merely the language processing parts of the brain.

In addition, storytelling results in oxytocin synthesis, which activates empathy, and releases dopamine into the system, making it easier to remember the story, and with greater accuracy.

So why are we so drawn to stories? We are simply wired that way.

In Conclusion

Stories connect us in ways that traditional presentation and outreach cannot. They engage our brains and our emotions. They put a face on an issue. They give life to data. They spur people to action. The Science of Storytelling helps strengthen relationships, communities, and programs.

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