The Powerful Effect that Stories have on Your Brain.
Humans love stories, there’s no two way about it. Many people around the world don’t read books, because of preference or lack of privilege. But there is not a single human soul who does not like a story, whether they are reading or listening to them.
This ubiquity of stories is rooted in the deepest of human nature. It is the oldest form of communication between humans that have existed ever since language was invented, and in this regard, we are no different from our cave-dwelling ancestors. We don’t think in terms of logic or cause-effect, we think in terms of stories or narratives. This is the reason educators and thought leader all over the world would swear by stories as one of the most powerful tools of teaching and learning anything.
March 20 has been designated as World Storytelling Day to celebrate the power and importance of stories. We take this opportunity to talk about how stories shape our lives and how we can use them to improve our learning abilities.
How we Learn with Stories
Stories have been used from the ancient days to the modern times across all cultures as the primary tool of teaching and learning about the world and its workings. Every child in every corner of the world received his or her first lesson in the form of bedtime stories or fairy tales. That should tell you something about the central role stories play in the human experience.
But not just children, humans of every age learn anything better when it is taught with stories. Bullet points and data presentations can organize information better. But to fathom the implications of that data we need illustrations, explanations, narratives.
Say, you want to talk about environmental damage. You can present data about the rising sea levels, rate of deforestation, rate of carbon emission etc. You can present the data of how many communities over the world have been displaced because of that.
Or, you can tell a story of a fishing village in the Sundarban mangrove forest region by the Bay of Bengal, who one day woke up to a great tidal wave that gobbled up half of their village and with it many lives.
Which of the two approaches do you think will make the listeners more apt to understand the cost of environmental damage?
Data is lifeless, but when you connect that data to real lives of people, you are much more likely to understand what that data means in terms of your life as a human.
The Science of Stories
Multiple neuroscience studies have used fMRI scans to map brain activities of people learning with stories. The scans from when they learn with stories and when they learn without them (through information intake and memorizing) are dramatically different.
When we are presented with dry facts and information, our brain process that as language. The language processing parts of our brain like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are seen to be active at this time, as is our auditory or visual cortex, depending on whether we are hearing or reading the presentation.
But when we are told a story about something involving the same data, we notice a dramatic increase of activities in the brain. The sensory and emotion processing parts get activated. When stories describe smell our olfactory cortex lights up. When they describe colour of the sky it is the visual cortex. When stories talk about motions, like running or grasping something, our motor cortex – which coordinates body movements – gets activated. Our brain remembers these sensory and motor activities when they hear them described and reproduces them, so in a sense we also ‘live’ the story.
Our experiences of stories are constructed not just by words and meanings, but also by our real life experiences. And that is why stories activate another important part of our brain that is dormant with dry information – our emotions. We can relate and feel with stories, and the memory is stored in multiple areas of the brain. That is why we remember the lessons of a story much more strongly than a report stuffed with data.
The power to tell and comprehend stories is one of the fundamental things that make us human. Stories allow us to empathize with people we do not know, stories help us forge trust and bonds. This World Storytelling Day, let us celebrate the oldest and the most unique form of learning that we humans have constructed for ourselves.