We all know stories bring history alive in a way that facts alone cannot. Neuroscience explains why. Looking at our brains on stories has lots of implications for family historians.
Remember that anti-drug commercial which showed an egg dropping into a frying pan of hot butter to demonstrate your brain on drugs?
Well, stories are the opposite of that hot, bubbling butter. As our brains absorb stories, they come alive with synapses firing all over the place.
Neuroscience: Brains on Stories Are More Active
In fact, functional MRIs reveal a marked difference in brains on stories versus brains exposed to facts alone.
Scans of volunteers exposed to facts show activity in their brain’s auditory and word processing centers. In other words, they were processing the information. However, as they listen to stories, many more areas of the brain light up.
In her article, Your Brain on Stories in Psychology Today, Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. summarizes the experience of our brains on stories versus facts alone:
… 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.  (emphasis mine)
Every family historian needs storytelling in their toolbox.
The Sensory Cortex on Stories
Furthermore, neurologists teach us that actions and descriptions in stories stimulate the brain. It goes beyond simple comprehension. Beyond processing information. .
Readers’ or listeners’ brains react to sensory descriptions as if they’re having the experiences narrated. Readers’ brains mirror the response they would have to those circumstances.
We need to include rich sensory details in our stories. We need to let our readers “walk” in our ancestors’ shoes.
When you write about the lurching of the ships, the smell of diesel fuel, the bone-numbing cold that pervaded below decks, you are giving your readers’ brains a taste of that experience. (See also Smells and Memory Recall: How it Works)
The After-Effects of our Brains on Stories
But wait, there’s more…
Researchers at Emory University found that stories can have lasting effects on the brain.
Volunteers read Pompeii, a historical thriller by Robert Harris. Afterwards, they had brain scans. In functional MRIs participants’ left temporal cortex lit up. That response wasn’t only observed for the period immediately following the reading assignments. It lasted for several days afterwards.
The powerful narrative literally stayed with the volunteers.
Implications for Family Historians
When we give our readers or listeners an emotional connection to the past, they’re open to hearing more. Once they’re “hooked,” facts are easier for them to digest.
It’s also important to note that Pompeii is an incredibly well-written book. Robert Harris uses rich emotional, sensory, and historical context. Though we may not have to reach that pinnacle of storytelling, the craft of writing matters.
How narratives connect with both our hearts and our minds.
It turns out the way to the heart isn’t through the stomach. It’s through storytelling and the brain.
Brains on Stories and Neurochemicals
Paul J. Zak, Ph.D. has done a lot of research about the production of a molecule called oxytocin and storytelling. His lab determined that compelling stories trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain and “and have the power to affect our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.”
Oxytocin signals that another person is safe and familiar, explains Dr. Zak. He writes, “Perhaps most surprising, we found that in humans, this ‘you seem trustworthy’ signal occurs even between strangers without face-to-face interactions.”
In other words, trust-building can take place through stories.
In addition, research published in 2018 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, reveals we connect best when we’re able to understand the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist of each story. We have an innate need to process events via a plot and through the main character’s journey.
Explaining our ancestors’ vulnerabilities helps our readers connect to them. Good storytelling techniques facilitates and deepens the potential for bonding.
What stories do you think will connect hearts and minds in your family? How will you tell them?
Stay tuned for my upcoming post: Why Stories Inspire and Connect.
 Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., “Your Brain on Stories,” Psychology Today, November 4, 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201411/your-brain-stories.
 “A novel look at how stories may change the brain,” eScienceCommons, December 17, 2013, http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html.
 Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., “Why Inspiring Stories Makes Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, February 2, 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4445577/.
 “The art of storytelling: Researchers explore why we relate to characters,” Science Daily, September 13, 2018, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180913113822.htm.