The Science in Storytelling, Part II

Today, we continue our discussion with Kendall Haven, author of Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. The project was quite the undertaking. According to his website, he gathered evidence from 16 different fields of scientific research, including neural biology, developmental psychology, neural linguistics, clinical psychology, cognitive sciences, information theory, neural net modeling, education theory, knowledge management theory, anthropology, organization theory, narratology, medical science, narrative therapy, and, of course, storytelling and writing.

And that evidence has “shown that this has evolutionarily rewired human brains to automatically think, understand, and remember through stories. Applying the science of story is the key to the art of effective communication for anyone who needs to inform, inspire, or educate.”

We share more of his insights today.

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What if, anything, in your research surprised you?
Half way through my research I suddenly (and, surprisingly for the first time) wondered what would happen if the research I uncovered came to conclusions different from what I had been preaching and lecturing for (at that time) well over a decade. My biggest surprise was that all of the research I found – remember that virtually none of it was conducted with an intent to look at or to investigate story, but to explore how the human brain and mind worked – not only exactly supported the structural architecture for effective stories that I had been using, but also that, while groping to explain their conclusions, many of these cognitive and neural scientists and developmental psychologists stumbled into using many of the same terms and nomenclature that I had developed.

Stories are really very simple things and are intrinsic to how humans think, process information, and interact with the world. I suppose the ultimate surprise is that—at a conscious level—we are not all intimately and articulately aware of the terms and elements of story, of the effective process of oral storytelling, and of the immense power and value of both. It should surprise us that it surprises anyone to suddenly discover (consciously) what they have always intimately known at a subconscious level.

What parts of the brain respond to storytelling? How is that different than the parts of the brain that are activated by facts and figures?
This is a central question of a new multi-year Department of Defense (DARPA) study that officially launches on April 12th of this year. I will be part of that study working with several teams of neurologists. Hold this question for two years. An explicit answer is coming.

Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts Study Webpage
(Credit: DARPA)

Do some people have a stronger connection to stories than others?
I think the wording of the question isn’t quite right. Every human is born with that hardwired neural story net. (Neural scientists call them “neural maps” since we use them to “map” different pieces of information onto each other.) However, your half-billion neurons are in a constant state of war-like turmoil, struggling to create dominant connections, pathways (information super highways), and nets. Those that are used, strengthen. Those that are not used, wither.

You automatically begin to use this powerful story net from birth to understand and to make sense out of the people and events around you. So, every human uses and strengthens their neural story net. However, those exposed to a steady diet of stories should, logically, develop stronger linkages in their story net than would those who are not.

I haven’t seen any research on it. I can’t say how big that difference would be. I haven’t seen any research to indicate a natural distribution of the strength of individual neural story nets across a population and, so, can’t say whether that spread would be significant or not.

Neural map example: A selected fiber tract in purple (right) with its corresponding location from different angles (lower left). The selected fiber tract is then projected in the 3D model, along with other tracts in different colors (upper left).
(Credit: Brown University)

Does it matter the culture? Is storytelling a worldwide phenomenon?
No, it does not matter. This neural story net and the specific elements that define it are global. They exist in very culture that has been studied. How different cultures tend to express those core story elements, and how they are typically presented in a story may differ from culture to culture. But not the core story structure, itself.

Does the way we go about getting our information now – particularly through the Internet – threaten storytelling?
Excellent question. Conjecture abound. Research on this topic does not exist as far as I can find. The same question is regularly asked in relation to the shortening attention span of our western culture. (Actually, I do not believe it is a shift in actual attention span—ability to stay focused and attentive—but rather a shift in our expectations based on how information is routinely delivered.) Again, I have seen no conclusive research on this topic either.

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When it comes to mastering any discipline, it helps for you to know the science behind it. Mr. Haven has certainly been a leader in trying to understand why we like and need stories and how our brains, through evolution, are actually hard-wired to pass along information is this manner. But he also has another important message: Knowing why and how our minds react to stories can help you better craft and communicate your message. In short, you can gain an advantage by knowing what is going on inside our minds as we develop or listen to stories.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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