“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”
John Haidt, The Righteous Mind (2011)
- Humans love stories
- We are living in an era of diminished attention spans triggered by the rise of social media
- The storytelling device can be an important tool for science communicators
Ah… the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story?
The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization. They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).
The human brain LOVES stories!
Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. We read them, we listen to them, we tell and re-tell them and we watch them (thank you, Hollywood). Stories – the good ones – have “stickability”.
Enter the fascinating work of Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book The Love Molecule. Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the ‘neuroscience of the narrative’. According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust. Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin. The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy. Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.
Storytelling in the “Post-Literate” Era
While we human animals still love stories, our consumption of stories (and associated behaviors) has evolved over time. Our feet are now firmly entrenched in the “Post-Literate Era” and an age of rapidly diminishing attention spans:
“The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th Century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents’ generation, to web pages that are granted 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant, and ultimately to Twitter’s 140-character limit.” Killianbranding (2015)
The National Centre for Biotechnology Information reports that the average attention span for a human in 2000 was 12 seconds. By 2015, it was only 8.25 seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.
The cognitive muscles that allow us to follow a story, complete a task or to learn and create are weakening. In fact, of the people that clicked on and started reading this blog entry, most only have read a third of the preceding text and several others have already moved onto things beyond this website.
The storytelling device and science communication
How we connect and interact as human beings has fundamentally changed with the introduction of the Internet. We no longer share our stories on cave walls. We do it on the fast-moving train of social media. Selfies and sound-bytes have become the proxy for social interaction and exchange. This has implications for science communication. Here’s the problem. Science is complex. Explaining science in absolutes runs counter to the culture (and methods) of science itself. Added to that, how we traditionally communicate the science is not how people want to hear about the science.
For example, if we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with (too many) facts or talking points, only the language processing part of our brain gets activated – the part where we translate words into meaning. Other than the unfortunate side effect of lulling a few people into peaceful slumber, nothing else happens beyond that particular decoding process.
Convey your message through a story format, however, and things transform considerably. Not only is the language processing part of the brain activated, but other areas as well; including those parts that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events of the story first-hand (Gonzales et al 2006)!
“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life…” “Your Brain on Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul, New York Times (March 17, 2012)
As scientists and science communicators, if we want to capture and retain the attention of our audience, we need to lead with the narrative. The process is more of an art than a science. The personality (likeability) of the storyteller comes into play, of course. How the story is told matters a great deal as well. Employing metaphors in an artful way can stimulate an audience’s senses; what brains see, hear, smell, taste and feel.
Stories are powerful communicators. A successful story will draw us in so far that, as Paul Zak states, we will find ourselves mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the storyteller or the character. The storytelling device is an important tool for the science communicator. In this world where we strive for immediate gratification, a science communicator needs to anchor new symbols around science. We need to create pictures with our words. In doing so, we transform facts and information into meaningful messages that stimulate the human brain and appeal to human values.
Who are your favorite (most effective) science communicators?
[This blog entry summarizes part of a seminar I gave at the University of California Davis on June 3rd, 2015, entitled: The Brave New World of Public Outreach: understanding human behavior, public opinion and the challenges for science communication. Thank you to the staff, faculty and students at the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for the kind invitation to present and engage in thoughtful discussion.]
- American Society of Human Genetics (2015). Communicating Science to the Public: a resource. Available online at: http://www.ashg.org/press/scientist_public.shtml
- Bearzi, Maddalena. (2013). Five Simple Steps for Communicating Science. National Geographic: Voices.
- Gonzales et al (2006). Reading cinnamon activates olfactory brain regions. NeuroImage. Volume 32, issue 2.
- Levi-Strauss, Claude. (1966). The Savage Mind. The Nature of Human Society series.
- Popova, Maria. (2012) The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc. http://www.brainpickings.org/2012/10/03/paul-zak-kirby-ferguson-storytelling/
- Scharf, Caleb. (2013). In Defense of Metaphors in Science Writing. Scientific American. July 9.
- Widrich, Leo. (2012). The Science of Storytelling: what listening to a story does to our brains. Buffersocial.
- Zak, Paul (2012). The Moral Molecule: The source of love and prosperity. Dutton Adult.
- Zak, Paul (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum: The Dana Foundation.