How stories engage our brains

Once upon a time a little girl called Anna told me a tale in the strictest of confidence. Huddled together in a whispered voice she captivated me with her story of bravery, when at a party full of girls and boys at her new school she put her hand up to be the magician's assistant. What admiring looks she drew from her peers, what a loud clapping noise she was deafened with when she took the rabbit from the hat and what popularity she gained! I was also a little girl back then and in an instant Anna and I became friends. I connected to her through empathy, thinking about a similar experience of my own and immediately understanding her bravery. I smiled all the way through her story and I am sure I gave her admiring looks and would have clapped like the party-goers if we hadn't been whispering.

So what is going on here? How did Anna in a few short sentences pave the way for us to become lifelong friends? Storytelling has long been one of our most fundamental ways of communicating, from cave painting, to tribal rituals, to the works of Shakespeare, to gossiping on the phone, to the most engaging TED talk. Now through neuroscientific research, we can understand why we are so much more engaged when listening to a story rather than just a list of information.

Dr Uri Hasson at Princeton University researches the underlying neural mechanisms of both the processes that allow the brain to integrate information over time and those that facilitate communication between people. Most researchers who study human cognition design lab experiments to test hypotheses by controlling as many variables as possible. Hasson's exciting approach is fundamentally different as he creates experiments that mimic the real-life complex situations that human beings face every day. He is therefore able to study the neural activity that drives behaviour under longer realistic conditions using, for instance, comedy films and stories of love lost and won from a school prom. His experiments provide some fascinating insights into how the brain processes information and stories using fMRI scanning technology.

One experiment involved a bi-lingual lady who told a story for over 15 minutes, firstly in Russian and then in English. Her brain activity was monitored and the story recorded. Volunteers who understood English but not Russian listened to the stories through headphones whilst in the scanning machine. When they heard the English version, through questioning, Hasson established that they understood it and their brains synchronised or aligned whereas before the recording, each volunteer's brain activity was different. He identified that when there was activity in the speaker's insula - a region in the brain's cortex that maps the bodily states associated with our emotional experiences - there was also activity in the same region of the listeners. When hers lit up, so did theirs. By just telling a story, the speaker was able to plant ideas, emotions and thoughts into the brains of the listener. The storyteller was not able to enable the listener to experience the exact same experience she had, but could enable the same activation in the brain - and the more the listener understood it, the more aligned the brain activity.

When the Russian recording was played back, there was little alignment. The woman was communicating the exact same story but using words the volunteers did not understand, so engaging with the meaning of the story is important.

Further investigating alignment, Hasson and his team played the story in different chunks, backwards, scrambled sentences, mixes of words and nonsense sound, preserving the auditory input but removing the meaning. There was initially a small degree of alignment at an auditory level but not one spreading into the insula at a deeply connected emotional, meaningful level. Hasson suggests that higher order cortical brain areas synchronize when listeners hear a real-life story and alignment comes from more than just auditory information. An additional experiment involved both Russian and English speakers listening to exactly the same story in their own mother tongue and brain activity still aligned - again, it is the meaning that causes the coupling at a deeper level, not just the words or the sound.

Hasson describes an experiment when brains showed alignment when a story was told in small chunks. Volunteers watched random scenes from BBC's Sherlock, involving him entering a cab in London driven by the murderer he is looking for. The volunteers then relayed what had happened to someone who had no prior knowledge of the show or the plot. The speaker showed similar neural activity both while they were watching the scene and when they retold it - and the second person while they were listening and then watching.

Hasson's work provides a neuroscientific basis for key points in communications. He cautions that unless people share some form of common ground, maybe even at the level of their belief systems, then people understand - ascribe meaning to - the same story in many different ways. His team conducted an experiment with two groups who listened to a story from J.D. Salinger about a man who lost his wife at a party. There were two groups and prior to listening to the recording, group 1 was told that the wife was having an affair with the man's best friend and group 2 that the wife was loyal but the husband was jealous. The findings were fascinating - group 1 all had similar brain activations to each other and group 2 to each other - but group 1 was different to group 2. One simple comment prior to the story changed the context and the common ground between the groups which then resulted in different interpretations and brain activation. In a world where we are surrounded by communications from many sources and perspectives, people hearing the same story are open to many different interpretations without common ground. At its simplest Hasson concludes that the best way of coupling our brains and finding true common ground in communications is a two way dialogue. The great storytellers who share common ground with their audiences certainly have a lot of power. If there is shared meaning then the deep coupling and alignment at an emotional level leaves listeners and audiences turning the story into their own idea or experience.

"The people who we're coupled to define who we are", says Hasson "but of course, that can have dangerous implications. Just one sentence can make a huge difference in how two listeners interpret a story. If brain imaging shows us anything, that can make people with a platform disproportionately powerful."

I doubt my childhood friend Anna realised how powerful her story was. But when I was with her, I felt brave and exciting - and what is really interesting is how that has remained as such a strong memory for me.

For further information on Hasson's work in this area, watch his recent TED talk.

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