Reflections on Reading: The Storytelling Brain

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By Hannah Whitehead

From the Fall 2010 Caller
Stories are the way we live our lives, so it is not surprising that our brains appear to be set up for them. Our lives are one experience followed by another in a sequence beginning with birth and ending with death, although some would say that death is merely the beginning of the next story. Storytelling is found in all cultures and has persisted from cave painting to YouTube, so people naturally wonder about the source of its robustness.
 
Our experiences take place in surroundings that the hippocampus of our brain indexes and constructs into a mental map. We continually adjust and update this map to link new experiences to what we already know, and revise our maps (our stories) accordingly. This kind of memory is very flexible and was originally part of our ability to navigate safely through terrain. It is why learning anything in a rich context is so much easier than learning decontextualized pieces. In fact, we have a predilection for making stories out of all we observe, even geometric shapes.
 
We tell stories as a way of explaining our experiences to ourselves and to others. Someone counted the kinds of verbal exchanges people had in public places: 65 percent was either personal stories or gossip (other people’s personal stories). When we have unexplained symptoms of illness, the quest for a diagnosis is the quest for a comprehensible story to explain our symptoms for ourselves, for those who care for us, and for our doctors. We want to know what is going on and why, and we are persistent in our search for answers. We even prefer speculation to no story at all.
 
Stories can be a way to try out experiences vicariously. Through stories— in books, oral histories and lore, movies, and other forms of tale-telling—we can immerse ourselves in other people’s lives, unconfined by time, place, culture, age, gender, or temperament. Those of us who would never dare to break into a bank or plan a complicated jewel heist can experience the adrenaline rush from afar without risking incarceration.
 
Being able to understand and empathize with others is a helpful trait to cultivate in members of a community. Children who are exposed to more fiction tend to perform better on tests of social ability and empathy. And those who are more empathetic are able to immerse themselves more completely in the trials and tribulations of the fictional characters. Stories are a good way to test-drive real life, rather like pilots training in a flight simulator.
 
Stories are also one way a culture defines its expectations of its members—its rules of behavior. Think of family stories, fairy tales, legends, religious texts, creation myths, and such. We pass this understanding on in the most memorable way possible for our brains—stories. As internet entrepreneur Mike Speiser says, stories are “one of mankind’s most efficient compression algorithms.”
 
Think about how difficult it is to remember a lecture that is merely informational. We have to take notes, chunk the information, review it, summarize it for ourselves; it takes a lot of conscious hard work to move that information from short-term to long-term memory. Information in this form tends to be received by the listener in a critical fashion, whereas information embedded in stories is accepted less critically. This technique is well understood by storytelling advertisers and politicians.
 
So the next time you want to get your point across, or to remember something, tell the story. “Gather round and let me tell you the story of stories . . .”
 
A faculty member since 1982, Hannah Whitehead is the head of Catlin Gabel’s beginning school and formerly taught kindergarten, 1st grade, and 6th grade. She has two alumni children: David ’90 and Katie ’94.  
Thanks to the following sources. We encourage further reading:
Caine, Renate Nummela, and Geoffrey Caine. Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Menlo Park, California: Addison Wesley Publ. Co. 1994.
Hsu, Jeremy. “The Secrets of Storytelling.” Scientific American Mind 18 Sept. 2008.