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Your Brain On Stories



Drawing of a brain

One day, many years ago, when I was early in my career, I found myself in front of a classroom full of people who didn’t want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the class I was giving. I knew that many, even most, of them thought the class was a waste of their time, and knowing that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great content would grab their attention, right?

I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong voice, I said  “Hello everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.” More than half the class wasn’t even looking at me. They were reading their emails and writing out to do lists. One guy had the morning newspaper open and was reading that. It was one of those moments where seconds seem like hours. I thought tos myself in panic, What am I going to do?

Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story,” I said. At the word “story” everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention. “It was 1988 and a team of Navy officers on the ship Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, were staring at a computer screen.  Something had just appeared on the radar in protected air space. They had orders to shoot down any hostile aircraft. Was this a hostile aircraft? Was it a military plane? Was it a commercial airliner? They had 2 minutes to decide what to do.”

I had them! Everyone was interested and riveted. I finished the story, which nicely made my point about why it’s important to design usable computer interfaces, and we were off to a great start. The rest of the day flew by, everyone was interested and engaged, and I got some of my best teacher evaluations ever.

Everyone likes stories. We like to listen to stories, read stories, watch stories (movies, TV, theatre) and tell stories. In fact, stories are our normal mode of information processing. Stories are so normal to us that we don’t even stop to think about why that is.

Let’s say you are listening to me give a presentation on the global economy. I’m NOT telling a story, but giving you facts and figures. If we had you hooked up to an fMRI machine we would see that your auditory cortex is active, as you’re listening, as well as Wernicke’s area of the brain where words are processed. If you were reading a newspaper article on the same topic then we would see, again Wernicke’s area as well as your visual cortex as you are reading.

But what if I started telling you a story about a family in South America that is being affected by changes in the global economy – a story about the father going to work in a foreign country to earn enough for the family, and the mother having to drive 100 kilometers for health care… what’s going on in your brain now?  the Wernicke’s area would be active again, as well as the same auditory or visual cortices, BUT now there’s more activity. We would see many other parts of your brain light up. If, in my story, I described the sharp smell of the pine forest high in the Andes where this family lives, your olfactory sensory areas of the brain would be active as though you were smelling the forest. If I described the mother driving over rutted muddy roads, with the vehicle careening from side to side, your motor cortex would be lighting up as though you were driving on a bumpy road. And if I started talking about the devastation the family felt when their young son died before he could get medical treatment, then the empathy areas of the brain would be active.

Which means that you are literally using more of your brain when you are listening to a story. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.

Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont College and author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, researches the role of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical in the brain that Zak says gives the “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. In his research he has discovered that:

  • If you develop tension in the story you will sustain attention.
  • If you sustain attention then it is more likely that the people hearing the story will start to share the emotions of the main characters in the story.
  • If people share the emotions of the main characters then they are likely to mimic the feelings and behaviors of the characters when the story is over.
  • Listening to a character story like this can cause oxytocin to be released.

And if oxytocin is released then it is more likely that people will trust the situation and the storyteller and more likely that they will take whatever action the storyteller asks them to take.

What do you think? Do you use stories purposely to increase engagement when you communicate?


19 responses to “Your Brain On Stories”

  1. […] specifically to marketers, you can definitely learn a thing or two about your brain on stories from Susan Weinschenk, the “Brain […]

  2. Sumit Garg Avatar

    Great read Susan!! When i started to read this post, i thought it would be similar to other storytelling posts, but i were wrong. You truly have persuasive story telling skills. Even i was thinking about my old days in the mid of reading this post. I found the last four points are key for a successful content marketing plan. Kudos to you.

  3. Emily Grabatin Avatar

    What a great article! Storytelling is so fundamental to our verbal communication, but also what we’re communicating with our life.

  4. Jason Rainbird Avatar


    In my line of work I reads lots of articles and too be honest I rarely finish most. Even though your article wasn’t a story I was fascinated by the content. It is absolutely true that everybody loves a story. This is why good a film and a good book cause so much of a stir. I think I will take onboard your article and start to create content for my clients that is less informational and more engaging. Thank you.

  5. Tim Avatar

    Thanks for making me smarter. My brain thanks you too :)

  6. Kyle Hailey Avatar

    Good article on explaining the power of story telling.
    I’ve convinced of the power of stories, but the question is “where can we get the good stories to tell?”
    That’s the question. Once we have the stories then we can practice them to get better but we have to have the stories.
    Would love to take a story telling class aimed at presentation skills.
    – Kyle

    1. Susan Weinschenk Avatar
      Susan Weinschenk

      Kyle — great point. and a great idea for a storytelling class aimed at presentation skills. I may have to consider including that the next time I teach my Presentation course. And perhaps add it in to my online video course too.

  7. Anastasia Avatar

    Great article, using a story to illustrate your point about the significance of telling a story was ingenious :)

  8. MaryBeth Muldowney Avatar

    Great article. I have always felt blessed to have been brought up by a Grandmother who had a way of communicating with me by telling terrific stories. She had lived through so much being born in 1888, the great world wars, the depression, being wealthy – being on aid, meeting so many visible people, so many inventions – it has always made me stop and say did I live then or did my Grandmother tell me that story, it instilled a love for life, a love for learning and most importantly interaction with so many people. I use story telling as a tool daily without even contemplating it and listen to my Clients tell others the same stories over and over again. They do remember!

  9. AIHRA Avatar

    Scientifically explained Susan. Thanks. I will do it during my speech.

  10. Jeffrey Eisenberg Avatar

    Hi Susan, Excellent post! Have you read our new book on storytelling yet? It’s Buyer Legends: The Executive Storyteller’s Guide

    1. Susan Weinschenk Avatar
      Susan Weinschenk

      Yes, I have read the new book. It’s really good, and of course, it’s about stories!

  11. Nathan Avatar

    Great article. It’s good to have some science to back something I already believed. Helps with those analytical non-believers! Keep making us interested!

  12. Rika Avatar

    As someone new to marketing and presentations with a project to get off the ground, no money and bad at telling stories, I found this post really interesting. How to structure a compelling narrative, create tension, hold attention, where to even find the stories in my information–I’m really struggling with all that. I have a tendency to ramble and can see people’s eyes glaze over. I’m looking for resources for effective storytelling. Can anyone here point me in a useful direction?
    Thanks Susan, this is good information.

  13. Jackie Holmes Avatar

    Right on the money! Love the angle with the brain research to back it up. What happens with different types of stories?

    What is truly interesting to me is that it all relates to human connection and how we are wired.

    Thank you! I will be passing this along.

  14. […] On her blog, behavioral scientist Susan Weinschenk describes what happens to the brain when someone hears a story versus a bunch of facts and figures: […]

  15. […] On her blog, behavioral scientist Susan Weinschenk describes what happens to the brain when someone hears a story versus a bunch of facts and figures: […]

  16. […] As psychologist and Behavioral Scientist Susan Weinschenk says:  […]

  17. Lee Weber Avatar
    Lee Weber

    Hello Susan. Your article has been assigned as required reading for a Master’s Degree course at Arizona State University called, “EMS 524: Sustainable Storytelling and Communications”. I thought you’d like to know!

    I have a background in medical writing, specializing in the behavioral science of addiction. Therefore, I find causally related behavior based in the brain to be fascinating.

    What is interesting to me personally is that oxytocin is produced during breast feeding, and is critical for bonding between mother and child. I breast fed both my children and think that there is a story there somewhere … but that the chemistry of the brain and its ability to connect with others gives me hope for mankind. When looking at the enormity of facing climate change, storytelling can be a way forward.

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