Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


This Is Your Brain

storytelling

(Photo: qvist/Shutterstock)

Your Brain on Story: Why Narratives Win Our Hearts and Minds

• April 22, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: qvist/Shutterstock)

Our craving and connection to story is so much more than a haphazard preference.

Of course the narratives got the nods. They do for a reason.

The recent Pulitzer Prize awards and finalists in journalism announced last week (minus a non-winner in features) reflect more than a subjective preference by the committee for one reporter’s excellent finished work over another’s. We physically can’t help but notice and reward narrative stories. The best reporting in all of the categories is tied to the personal stories of the individuals impacted.

That is because, as humans, we are helpless story junkies.

The preponderance of narrative approaches lauded by the Pulitzer committee last week in the work of The Boston Globe, The Center for Public Integrity, and The Gazette, among others, demonstrates that our craving and connection to story is so much more than a haphazard preference.

Your brain on story is different than your brain when it is receiving any other form of information, including straight facts and data. There are proven intersections between neuroscience, biology, and story we cannot ignore. The threads of stories that we read, hear, watch, and click on affect us intrinsically. And tempt us as well.

Neuroscientists at Emory University published research in December 2013 showing the changes in neural patterns of volunteers after reading a narrative story based on real events. The researchers assigned subjects to read Robert Harris’ 2003 novel Pompeii, a piece of historical fiction based on real events. It is a genre cousin to narrative non-fiction and narrative journalism that employs the storytelling techniques of fiction to tell true stories.

“The power of anecdote is so great that it has a momentum in and of itself.” Ira Glass contends, “no matter how boring the facts are,” with a well-told story, “you feel inherently as if you are on a train that has a destination.”

The results showed heightened connectivity in a specific part of the brain. The left temporal cortex lit up, and not just for the period immediately following the reading assignments. The neural changes persisted for several days. This is why we sometimes say that a story was so powerful we just can’t seem to shake it.

The Emory researchers found the primary sensory motor region of the brain changes as well after reading narrative. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” reported Gregory Berns, director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy and lead author of the study. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

That’s why some stories make you say, “It made me feel as if I was there.” It is why some journalism is compelling, engaging, and makes our hearts pound. And it may also be why there is a growth in the narrative sector of online journalism—with standouts like Byliner, The Atavist, Narrative.ly, Longreads (bought recently by Automattic), and Delayed Gratification, which bills itself as “slow journalism.” We like these sites because we like what the stories do to us.

Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate School, found that reading simple, humanistic stories changes what is in our blood streams. Taking blood samples of subjects before and after reading a story about a father and his terminally ill son, Zak found their blood levels contained an increase of cortisol and also oxytocin after reading the story. Called the human bonding or empathy chemical, oxytocin is also released by breastfeeding mothers.

Once they had read the story, subjects were then asked to donate money to a cause for ill children. Eighty percent of the subjects complied. Imagine anything that would cause 80 percent of subjects to do as they were asked.

The University of California-Los Angeles’ social cognitive neuroscience lab director Matthew D. Lieberman studies social interaction and reflects on those connections in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.” He has said, “This is what our brains were wired for: reaching out and interacting with others.” Stories seem to contain that timeless thread of human connection, even if that connection is just through words on a page or screen, or words heard on a podcast.

That notion is supported by the millions of listeners captivated by the stories told by ordinary people by the content foundation of Story Corps, the non-profit narrative receptacle of Dave Issay. Producers have gathered 45,000 stories from 90,000 individuals in cities across America.

Ira Glass, who founded This American Life—a show that draws 1.7 million people to each weekly podcast on more than 500 radio stations—has said that “the power of anecdote is so great that it has a momentum in and of itself.” He contends, “no matter how boring the facts are,” with a well-told story, “you feel inherently as if you are on a train that has a destination.”

This is similar to what Contagious author Jonah Berger refers to as “a Trojan Horse.” You can deliver any message inside, if the Trojan Horse—or vehicle of the message—is a story. Stories, Berger said, are transmitters of contagion. Because of the propensity for stories to spread, journalists must safeguard their veracity.

True, the flip side is that the drive to find compelling stories is so strong and the rewards so great, that it lures some journalists to become fabulists, plagiarizing and fabricating their way into false stories. We know well the historic lessons of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass as the anti-heroes of narrative journalism.

They so acutely understood the need for strong stories that they conjured anecdotes from out of thin air and claimed them as truths. The documentary A Fragile Trust about Blair’s New York Times plagiarism scandal airs on PBS in a few weeks. Almost unbelievably in an age when a lifted sentence can be discovered in a millisecond, journalists continue the malpractice.

Yes, personal narrative stories are at the core of stories that win Pulitzer Prizes for journalists, this year, and for the past several years.

They also are the type of stories awarded prizes in other contests around the country, such as the upcoming 2013 Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest. As a judge in last year’s contest, I read through scores of exceptional narrative from newspapers large and small.

Narrative journalism has its narrativangelists and they flock to conferences such as a recent one in Boston to hear from the patron saints of narrative and to polish their craft. Narrative is close to a religion for some journalists. And now we know why.

The physical power of story and what story does to our brain is the real news. The most prestigious award in the profession is only a reminder. Learning how to harness that rocket fuel for carrying news and information effectively may yield the greatest prize and the wider rewards.

Michele Weldon
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, and assistant professor emerita in service at The Medill School, Northwestern University. She is a senior leader with The OpEd Project and directs the Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship. She recently co-directed TEDx NorthwesternU 2014.

More From Michele Weldon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.