What storytelling does to our brains?

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A story can put your whole brain to work. A good story can make or break a presentation, article, or conversation. But why is that? When Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich started to market his product through stories instead of benefits and bullet points, sign-ups went through the roof. That’s science of why storytelling is so uniquely powerful.

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize.

We are narrative beings. Our humanness is built on the ability to understand ourselves in the context of a story, so we’re basically hardwired for stories.

In the age of YouTube, though, we have many more signals competing for our attention. We have the tyranny of the small screen, attention spans are shrunken. You’ve to change, how you tell a story, because at the end of the day, stories only work if you are immersed in them.

The Surprise of a lifetime

Power of a Surprise – Surprise makes us smile, listen, watch and even change behavior.

An ad that explores the connection between an immigrant son and his mother back home that every immigrant and expat anywhere in the world will identify with. What a magical moment. Seeing her so excited about something as simple and fundamental as sending a lunch box and seeing son face to face is awesome. And that beautiful surprise makes her glow with happiness.

Surprise is a powerful emotion. Psychologically, surprise is a response to unexpected stimuli. When routine is disrupted, rules and standards are broken, expectations are violated, and surprise is the outcome.

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A story is immersive when it effectively induces a deictic shift, which is the moment when you assume a viewpoint of one of the characters of the story, and you forget yourself. They’ve done MRI scans on the brains of people watching movies and they say cinema is the closest we get to dreaming with our eyes open. The lateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-awareness, goes dim. You forget your body, the theater, your chair. The mind is free from the confines of the body, and that is when you enter the liminal trance state.

All kinds of stories are technologies of rhetoric, and they can induce the same immersive trance states as movies and it can only occur when our attention is fully arrested. When a story is not effective or engrossing, within a few minutes you become restless, start to look around and wonder when it’s going to end. The difference between a good storyteller and a bad one, no matter the medium, is in the power of the voice to envelop you, to create that deictic shift.

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💡 Did you know, For over 27,000 years, telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods.


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