Once upon a time, in a land far, far, away, there lived a teacher who was torn about how to reach her students and help them remember important information. She journeyed far and wide to speak to sages and scholars and what she found made her happy; for it underscored her own beliefs. So the teacher journeyed back to her homeland and began sharing her new found knowledge, but not in the way you might think. She shared stories, not scholarly journals because, like she’d always known, a good story is the best teacher.
Writers spark our imagination. Their stories can become a catalyst for creativity opening doors to new possibilities. Think of Jules Verne and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek (William Shatner changed the world you know). Alternatively, stories can caution us and make us consider the greater ramifications of our imaginations in action – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot come to mind with their warnings about tampering with nature and playing god or the ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence. Stories have great power to teach us, but they can also build relationships and foster empathy.
Researchers have come up with many creative ways to study and assess how the brain learns and remembers. For example, research shows us that we remember facts better if they are in stories far better than if they are in lists.
Likewise, facts that stir up intense emotions are quickly and easily stored in our brains and well-told stories are a great way to tie emotions to facts. Researchers have also demonstrated that the common marks of good storytelling–metaphors and analogies that draw the audience in–work because they allow the audience to tie the story to previous knowledge and experience.
Nicole Dieker, in “Infographic: How Our Brains Respond to Different Content Formats” from The Content Strategist outlines that if you want to build relationships, use text because our brains are activated in the same area whether we read about something or see it in real life.
Another team of researchers from Princeton, lead by Uri Hasson, used MRI scans to detect brain activity not only in the story-teller, but also in the story-listeners. For their experiment, they had a woman relay her story in two languages in which she is fluent – English and Russian. They then had people listen to both versions, but the listeners were only fluent in English. What they found was the listeners’ and the story-teller’s brains synchronized. The researchers determined this because they could monitor specific activity through the MRI in the story-teller’s and the listeners’ brains. What they saw was individual areas of the brain being activated in both story-teller and listener.
When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. 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.
Hasson also looked at listening comprehension. He found that the more the listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker’s. When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.
Annakeara Stinson outlines in her article, This is How Reading Changes Your Brain & It’s Even More Wild Than You Think, that reading can “create positive growth psychologically, and it can even improve your levels of compassion and empathy.” How does it do this? Well, the scans from a research study done by Emory University in 2013 showed activity in the region of the brain associated with physical activity and movement. Essentially, the reader does what the character does and feels what the character feels. Furthermore, our brain remains changed for days after reading a novel. So, stories can change us on a biological level – we truly do walk a mile in someone else’s shoes when we read their story.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Kazuo Ishiguro said: “Stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” Stories spark that kind of deep understanding and nurture empathy. That’s why it is more important than ever that we encourage and assist students to listen to each other’s stories and tell their own.