The Science in Storytelling

Why do we like stories? Why do we seem to need them? Why do we still, to this day, find the Iliad so fascinating that Brad Pitt grew his hair really long to star in Troy. (Did Homer’s ancestors get a box office cut?)

There’s science behind storytelling. It’s said that our brains are hard-wired to think in the narrative form. Before we developed the written word, we passed information through stories. You think it’s a coincidence that we like to tell stories around campfires?

Stories also help our recall abilities. Studies show that we remember more when the information comes in the form of a story than a fact-filled presentation.

The subject fascinates, Kendall Haven, a senior research scientist and storyteller. He’s the author of the book, Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story.

There is indeed a scientific process to storytelling, Haven says. And knowing that can help any business, agency or organization come up with better communication strategies and messaging.

As with our other blog contributors, Haven has a life story that is also fascinating. The Northern California resident is a West Point graduate who also has a Master’s Degree in Oceanography. He’s written 27 books and his storytelling clients include NASA and the United Way of America.

Over the next two days, the Collaborative Services blog will feature Haven’s answers to a number of questions we posed to him about this fascinating subject. We begin with why he researched and wrote his book and what conclusions he discovered.

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Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story

What prompted you to write the book, “Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story?”
Two answers: first, I was maneuvered into a challenge—almost a dare—by a NASA senior exec. I had just presented a workshop for NASA science writers on using story structure for their public outreach articles, claiming—as we all intuitively know to be true—that story structure was a more effective way to organize and present their information. In front of the assembled room of writers, he challenged me to back up my claim with proof. I “gladly” accepted the challenge—even though at the time I was not at all sure that I would be able to find any hard, quantitative, rigorous scientifically acceptable evidence, let alone a “proof.” I feared I would have to rely on massed anecdotal experiences. The book is the result of that research effort. The proof is readily abundant, consistent, rigorous, and overwhelming in both its volume and in its unbridled and enthusiastic acclaim of the benefits of story.

Second answer: Even in the early 1980’s, when I first became active in the National Storytelling Association, we all bemoaned the lack of hard evidence that we could use to convince skeptical administrators and bureaucrats of the value of our storytelling programs. When, in the early-to-mid 90’s, I was on the board of National Association for the Perpetuation and Preservation of Storytelling and the National Storytelling Association that lack of research evidence came up over and over. All agreed that “someone should do the research!” The problem is that controlled research is both expensive and time consuming. Neural research is prohibitively expensive. Storytelling, at that time, was not a glitzy topic that could attract sizable research dollars.

I, and a number of other tellers, snuck in small studies as we could. Most were impressive in their conclusions. But none were either big enough or controlled enough to merit publication. After the NASA challenge, I jumped into the process of sifting through over 240,000 pages of research from 16 separate fields of science (the basis for Story Proof) to see if we could—once and for all—put to rest the complaint that “we don’t have any research to prove our storytelling programs have real value and merit.”

So why is story structure actually hard-wired into our brains?
In part, this is a “which-came-first, the-chicken-or-the-egg” question. I’ll answer here with the majority opinion of the researchers. For well over 100,000 years before humans had written language, they communicated all essential history, information, concepts, events, attitudes, values, etc. in story form AND they archived (saved and remembered) those pieces of information in story form in human memory. 100,000 years of reliance on story form and on the oral storytelling process to both communicate and to archive (remember) all essential information has literally rewired human brains so that you (we) are born with a fixed (hardwired) neural story net. That net has been tested and identified in babies as young as 2 months old. That net automatically processes all incoming sensory information through the combined neural centers that create and interpret the specific elements that form the core architecture of effective stories. Those specific centers lie between our major sensory organs (eyes and ears) and our conscious mind (the frontal lobes). You turn everything into story form before you pass it to your conscious mind. We are truly homo narratus (story animals).

Areas of the brain involved in language processing.
(Credit: Wikipedia)

Has this been in anyway an advantage when it comes to our adaptability and survival?
Interesting question. Story thinking has certainly been an integral part of our personal and cultural development. There is certainly a value to gathering sensory information in order to automatically assess goals and motives for the various animals and people that you meet. (That, by the way, is an example of our story-based thinking.) Yet, there is no research that I have seen that has tried to link story-based thinking with survival advantage. Story thinking is simply who and what we are.

– – –

Stay tuned because on Wednesday, Kendall Haven continues to share how it’s not just Brad Pitt that keeps us interested in stories like the Iliad. Although, we’re sure he helps.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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