What Makes Story So Powerful? (Part 2)

By Jonathan Peters, PhD
Chief Motivation Officer, Sententia Gamification

When we hear someone else telling a story or sharing a metaphor, our brain quickly searches for similar experiences we’ve already had.

You probably haven’t been to Kakadu National Park. You probably haven’t even been to Australia. And if you have been, you probably haven’t ever been in Northern Territories, Australia. And if you have, did you leave Darwin? Or were you way down south at Uluru Rock? So you literally can’t relate to my story.

But when you read that story, your brain scrambled around looking for similar experiences you’ve had. Have you been to a national park? Have you seen petroglyphs? If you’re in the US, that “40c” reference threw you, but you understand hot and humid. 

When our brains search for similar experiences, we activate a region called the insula, which is an emotion part of the brain. This allows us to associate the proper emotions to what we are being told: joy, fear, disgust, desire, and so on.

 And this is where it get’s weirder. When researchers studied the brains of a storyteller and her listeners, they noticed that the brains synched up. When the woman was telling a story, there was activity in her insula as she felt the emotions of her story. At the same time her listeners had similar activity in their insula regions. Also, when scans showed activity in her frontal cortex, the listeners had similar activity there as well.

In other words, by telling a story, she literally controlled their minds.

How about one more? What if you wanted a learner to “own” a concept, idea, or process? In other words, what if you want them to believe that it was their idea all along?

According to researchers, a story is the only way to activate the brain in a manner that causes them to believe it was their idea or experience.

You’ve had this experience; you were at work telling someone a story about how you came to a conclusion. Then two weeks later, in a meeting with the boss, they take credit for your idea. You thought they were being jerks, but you simply weren’t aware of the mind-control you enacted on them.

So, what about you, your learning programs, and your learners? Instead of simply doling out information, use stories, examples, and metaphors to engage more of their brains. If you want to take it a step further, deliberately use stories to engage in mind control. Determine what you want them feel and remember, and then couch that information in a story.

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