What Makes Story So Powerful? (Part 1)

By Jonathan Peters, PhD
Chief Motivation Officer, Sententia Gamification

A few years ago, I was exploring petroglyphs and ancient dwelling sites in Kakadu National Park in Northern Territories, Australia. In my usual fashion, I didn’t follow a prescribed path, and I didn’t take the time to read any interpretive signs. I had a lot to see, and not much time. 

As I jogged around one interesting rock formation, I was confronted by a huge painting on the cliff face. Panting and sweating (it was 40c and humid), I glanced over the drawing and instantly understood the story, or at least the broad strokes of it: The big creature with the claws and teeth (and huge vagina) gave birth to a more comforting creature, who was the mother of all humans, or at least the tribe who owned this origins story.  

In other words, people from more than 20,000 years ago, who spoke a language I don’t speak (and probably no longer exists), told I story that I could understand. 

If they had created a PowerPoint Presentation with bullet points. I doubt I could have understood it, nor would I have found it interesting. 

It turns out our brains are hard-wired for story… 

…And not for PowerPoint slides and bullets. 

When we watch a presentation, the Broca and Wernicke parts of the brain are engaged, and that’s about it. These are small regions of our brains that translate words into meaning. So, as you read those two sentences, that’s all that is going on in your brain. 

But as you read that third sentence, something changed. I created a simple story about your brain reading words. When you read that third sentence, all sorts of things happened. You began visualizing your brain firing, and you began to create a little narrative in your head. It’s still going on now. In fact, as I write this – hours, days, weeks, months before you read it, I predict that you are having an imaginary conversation with me. 

Mind control!  

What makes story so powerful? At its simplest, a story is about cause and effect. And this is how we think. When there is an effect, we look for a cause. For every action we take or decision we make, we create little stories in our heads about why it happened. We have imaginary conversations all day long (like the one you’re having with me now). 

So, we can tell a simple story, like the that single-sentence one above about you reading, and cause the brains of our learners to engage with the material and to have internal conversations about the material. 

But what if you wanted to take the mind control a step further?

(To be continued...) 

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