While you’re reading this sentence your brain is telling you if this is actually worth your time or not. If it is the former, you continue reading. But why? What in a piece of writing is the determining factor as to whether something is well written or not? How does our brain, which would once upon a time memorize algebraic equations, read novels that ran into pages, and sit through 8 hours of lectures, now have the attention span of a few minutes? Storytelling has dictated much in the media world, as with evolving media, the attention spans of our brains have also evolved. We speak to two professionals who are trained in psychiatry to delve into why the human brain loves itself some good ol’ storytelling.
Can the brain tell the difference between different kinds of storytelling?
Dr Rashi Agarwal, (M.B.B.S. M.D. Psychiatry) answers this by explaining that a story if broken down, is a connection of cause and effect. “Most of our stories are personal experiences and also gossip. The part of the brain reacting to stories is the insula. Hence making us love relatable stories more in process of trying to find a connection. This is why metaphors work so well in our day to day conversations, an added bonus if they are in the local dialect.”
“Our brain is always looking for cause and effect, adding 2+ 2 to make it 4 , hence giving a meaning to everyday life , while also making memories . The simpler the story the more likely it will strike a chord and will be understood and remembered for long.” - Dr Rashi Agarwal, (M.B.B.S. M.D. Psychiatry)
What does storytelling do to the brain?
Studies suggest that when the brain hears a story, the brain waves of the listener synchronise with those of the person who is telling the story. In a study conducted by Princeton University, it was found that when the brain activity of two people was recorded, one being the storyteller and the other being the listener, the more the listener understood what was being said, the closer their brain activity was to that of the person telling the story.
Likewise, while reading, there are different areas of the brain that are activated during the process. These areas involve the ones that are involved in deciphering what comes next, the motives of the person involved and looking through different perspectives.
How does the brain react to good and bad news?
Storytelling is one of the most powerful techniques humans have mastered for communicating feelings and emotions, says Dr Rashi. “The brain reacts differently to different types of news and hence releases different neurotransmitters. For happiness, serotonin is released. For surprises and excitement, dopamine and norepinephrine are released which lead us to want to experience that event again.”
She points to this dopamine hit as the reason we keep going back to certain habits, people, places or experiences. Likewise, these positive endorphins are not released when we watch news that is gory or bad and hence our brains want less of it.
Dr Era Dutta, (MD Psychiatry, DNB, MBBS) and Founder of Mind Wellness shares similar viewpoints. “A narrative grips a brain in a way that many neurons in the emotional centre, memory centre, experiential learning centre all begin to fire. Stories that lead to a deeper sense of emotional engagement engage the frontal and parietal cortices. Imagining an activity as described in a story stimulates the neurons associated with performing that action called mirror neurons.”
Do you really get along with people of the ‘same wavelength’?
You have often heard people say that you gel well with those who are of the same wavelength as you. This is in the course of leisure, friends, romantic partners, or even the workplace. However, Dr Rashi lays emphasis on this saying that while people of the same wavelength get along well, it is not this factor that plays a big role. “On a larger scale, one would not choose to be friends with a person similar to them. We tend to make up qualities in friends which we lack in self, hence balancing.”
Dr Era meanwhile says there is truth to the ‘same wavelengths’ statement. “Our brain on perceiving the same wavelength fires up the mirror neurons. There is brain coupling and firing of similar brain centres (seen on fMRI) when two people get along.”
Does advertising rely on good storytelling?
You watch ads throughout the day, often unknowingly you are advertised with products and services. But of those millions of ads, there are only a few that stick in your mind. Why? Advertising that is crafted on the basis of good storytelling is that which manages to keep us engaged. “Curiosity killed the cat. We all look for things with novelty. The quirky captions usually stimulate novelty and challenging information and experiences in our brains. Humans have an innate strong desire to explore and persist in the activity that initially stimulated an individual’s interest. Quirky captions tick all these boxes,” says Dr Era.
Dr Rashi points out why mnemonics work so well. The weirder the mnemonic, the more likely it’s going to stay in your memory, she says. “A story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain which we see on a daily basis that short-form videos do much better than longer content as it uses less attention. Suspense is met earlier leading to satisfaction.”