Stories are important to me. Well, words to be more exact: They fill up my page with wonder and excitement. It’s not exactly the idea of a happy ending, but rather the fact there’s an ending. I can see it coming to an end, where the protagonist finally achieves what they fought for.
While the light at the end of the tunnel is clear for many stories, I often can’t say the same about my life. That’s why I read—living in that false reality helps me calm down. It gives me hope that things will get better if I just keep trying.
Storytelling also helps people make connections with each other. Stories that are deep, emotional, and real root themselves into people’s hearts and create a bond with the reader. Narratives help us understand the world that others live in, that everyone’s lives are not the same. Reading and understanding these differences help us become more open-minded and empathetic, because stories show us cultures, histories, and values that are important to a person’s life.
Storytelling also affects the brain. And science shows us that stories impact not only our hearts but our minds too. The four main effects are neural coupling, mirroring, the release of dopamine, and cortex activity.
Neural Coupling and Mirroring
Neural coupling allows a listener or reader to turn a story into their own experiences and ideas. The words and phrases manifest in the listener’s brain creating a virtual experience. For example, if a word like lavender or cinnamon popped up in a book, the smell regions of the brain would activate, making it seem like the reader has actually smelled it.
Mirroring is neural coupling’s effect: It occurs when the listener and speaker experience similar brain activity. The parts in our brain that light up when we do something (mirror neurons) also light up when we watch someone else do an activity. These mirror neurons can also activate when we read or hear about someone performing an action. For example, we wince when we read about nails scratching on a chalkboard, or we smile when someone tells us about adopting a new pet. This also happens on an emotional level. When we observe or hear about other’s feelings, we manifest and internally mirror their experiences and emotional states.
Dopamine is a chemical released in our brains, that makes us happy, allows us to feel pleasure, and regulates our mood. When we read or hear stories (an emotionally-charged event), our brains release dopamine into our system, which results in a kind of imprint in our memory that makes it easier to remember information—with accuracy as well. Messages delivered as stories can be 22 times more memorable than just facts.
When you read stories, two areas of the brain are activated: Broca’s and Wernicke’s. These regions are used when processing facts. Broca’s area helps with producing coherent speech, while Wernicke’s area helps process and understand language. Overall, these areas guide us in decoding words into meaning. In this process, your left temporal cortex is also activated. This is the area that is receptive to language and filters out overused words and clichés. Meanwhile, the frontal and parietal cortices, involved in our senses, are activated, providing a deeper sense of emotional engagement. This means that when you read descriptions of events filled with emotions like regret, happiness, sorrow, etc. you feel more hooked to the story. It feels as if these events have actually happened to your own self.
Taking a step back...
Stories are important in many different ways than just for educational purposes—they motivate us to change for the better. Paul Zak, a scientist and a public speaker, conducted a recent experiment where participants tested to see how they would react to different ads compared to those who hadn’t seen the ads. The ads were focused on convincing people not to drink and drive, or to use drugs; the number of donations made and casualties to these causes were used to measure the impact the ads did or didn’t have. People who watched the ads donated 57% more to the cause than those who didn’t watch the ads. Also, these people said that they were less likely to engage in the dangerous behaviors shown in the ad.
Stories transmit important information and values from one person to another, so just watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to a story can motivate you to make positive changes in your life. Storytelling has positive impacts on our minds, too. By simply narrating an event, we engage so many parts of our brain that further help us with memorization and connection with other people.
Chisholm, Sean. “The Role of Mirror Neurons in Nonprofit Storytelling.” Classy, 10 Nov. 2016, www.classy.org/blog/the-role-of-mirror-neurons-in-nonprofit-storytelling/.
Heffernan, Micheál. “The Power of Storytelling and How It Affects Your Brain.” Tales for Tadpoles, 23 Feb. 2017, talesfortadpoles.ie/blogs/news/the-power-of-storytelling-and-how-it-affects-your-brain.
Quintero, Alan. “The Power of Storytelling.” Trenegy, Trenegy, 6 Aug. 2019, trenegy.com/publications/power-storytelling/.
Zak, Paul J. Zak Paul J. “How Stories Change the Brain.” Greater Good, 17 Dec. 2013, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain.