Human beings are programmed to engage with stories and narratives. From an early age we use stories as a tool for learning and making sense of the world. As we grow older our lives are endlessly shaped by the stories all around us – we share anecdotes with colleagues and friends, we are exposed to daily news reports charting people’s lives and experiences, and we read literature to provoke, challenge and fulfil us.

But why are stories so viscerally powerful? What is the science behind the story?

Researchers have found that our brains behave in complex ways when we read stories. Reading a narrative, such as the extract below, engages our brains in a multitude of ways:

It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas

A brain scan after reading this extract would reveal how the metaphors, illustrative descriptors and narratives are stimulating what is happening inside our heads. Dopamine is released making it easier to remember the content, and with greater accuracy. A process called neural coupling means that we link the story to our own ideas and experiences.

Research by cognitive scientists has also found that metaphors and words evoking texture (such as the moles snouting in their velvet dingles) actually rouse the sensory cortex. Likewise, words describing motion provoke our motor cortex (even with specificity to the limb in question) and descriptors of smell stimulate the olfactory senses. This means that simulating through words can provoke a feeling not dissimilar to a real life experience.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto describes how reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

Researchers Bortolussi and Dixon carried out research into the effects of stories concluding that we process stories not so much in terms of a text as an immutable object, but in terms of how we interact with it. They say that, “aesthetic reaction is not to the text, but rather to the readers’ mental representation” of it. This means that by activating and engaging the brain stories can change how we think, feel and act in life.

Aristotle understood the transformative power of stories. His holy trinity of persuasion – the combination of logos (i.e. grounding with logic and rationality), ethos (i.e. instilling credibility and authenticity) and pathos (i.e. provoking emotion and empathy) – is a critical frame for anyone seeking to persuade public opinion. Academics, policy researchers and social scientists recognise the value of rigorous, robust research – fulfilling the logos and ethos pillars, but pathos (i.e. empathetic storytelling) is all too often left by the wayside. Social researchers seeking to persuade others of their findings would do well to remember that by combining all three you can end up with a truly winning formula.

And to close, I’ll leave you with another evocative extract from Under Milk Wood, the richly redolent words mingling in masterful counterpoint, sparking the synapses in our brain…

You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.

Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep.

And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before-dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.

Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, suckling mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman’s lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is to-night in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.

Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas

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