neuroscience

Storytelling 1: The Science of Storytelling

By Nevit Dilmen (talk) and Tekks (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via  Wikimedia Commons

By Nevit Dilmen (talk) and Tekks (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Our world is awash with stories.

Not only ones we seek out, but others we're confronted with whether we like it or not. True stories, fictional stories, fictional stories purporting to be true stories… They feature in every aspect of our daily lives, from business to politics to leisure.

And for good reason. Storytelling is an extremely powerful tool. It alters the activity in your brain, influencing not only what you think and feel, but how you act. Which is quite useful if you’ve ever needed to convince someone of something – whether it’s that they should donate to charity or hire you for your dream job.

There’s a fascinating – and growing – body of research into the science behind storytelling. Labs across the world are exploring how stories impact on the human brain – from how we understand them to their role in communication.

Curious? Read on for three examples (referenced below) you might find useful when telling your own stories. And for insightful analysis of what to do with this all storytelling, do check out Sisonke Msimang's excellent Ted talk.

1. Simulation of reality

Hearing or reading a story creates a simulation of reality in your brain. In other words, your brain processes the story as if you were actually experiencing its events first-hand.[i] That ‘real’ experience can provide a useful short-cut to improving understanding and emotional connection between storyteller and audience.

2. Emotion and empathy

Emotionally arousing stories raise the pain thresholds of the audience, and increase their sense of group bonding.[ii] Stories with a strong emotional and dramatic arc are also more likely to inspire empathy in the audience and influence their subsequent actions (such as charitable giving) than stories that are emotionally neutral.[iii] [iv] 

3. Alignment and communication

Storytelling “couples” or aligns your brain with that of your listener. When you tell people a story, their brain activity begins to mirror yours and you interpret the story in the same way. The stronger the similarity in your brain activity, the better the communication between you and your listener(s).[v] [vi] Uri Hasson’s Ted talk, though a few years old now, is useful for a quick overview of some of this research – and why it matters.

This is the first of our three-part series on storytelling. Do drop us a line if you have any questions, or would like to know more about how you can use storytelling more effectively at work. Or sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.


[i] Oatley, K (2012), The Cognitive Science of Fiction. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. 3(4), 425-430.

[ii] Dunbar RIM, Teasdale B, Thompson J, Budelmann F, Duncan S, van Emde Boas E, Maguire L. (2016) Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding. Royal Society open science, 3: 160288.

[iii] Barraza, J., Alexander, V., Beavin, L. Terris, E., & Zak, P. (2015). The heart of the story: Peripheral physiology during narrative exposure predicts charitable giving. Biological Psychology. 105, 138-143.

[iv]  Zak, P. J. (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2.

[v] Stephens, G. J., Silbert, L. J., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(32), 14425–14430

[vi] Liu, Y., Piazza E., Simony, E., Shewokis, P., Onaral, B., Hasson, U., Ayaz, H. Measuring speaker–listener neural coupling with functional near infrared spectroscopy. PRE-PRINT. bioRxiv preprint first posted online Oct. 16, 2016; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/081166.

Why singing improves well-being

People singing

I'm sometimes asked why we use singing in our sessions. I'm not surprised – and not only because singing is, ahem, a touch unusual in leadership development. Thing is, however natural it might be, singing comes with baggage. It’s always a loaded concept, whether that's with feelings of joy or outright fear, or something in between.

And actually, in our work, all of that is useful.

That element of fear and exposure can help you notice how you respond to risk and uncertainty. And do so in a way that’s not only immediate, but that is all-encompassing: physically, intellectually and emotionally. In pulling you out of your comfort zone, singing can take you to a place of stretch. And that, we know from recent research, is where most of us learn best and most memorably.

It's even likely that, because it’s a bit risky, singing actually increases your resilience. We're currently collaborating with neurobiologists at Ashridge Business School to find at whether public singing creates templates in your brain that help you tackle other challenges more easily. We'll keep you posted on our findings!

So I embrace that element of fear. And one of the things I find fascinating about singing is how quickly it can take you from that place of fear to one of connection, trust, and well-being. And for lots of people, it can happen within the space of a single song.

There’s a growing body of research into the impact of singing on well-being. We now know, for example, that group singing raises your pain threshold. And that it releases oxytocin into your bloodstream, which helps promote feelings of trust and safety.

Singing also enables fast social bonding. It breaks the ice so you feel closer as the group, even if you don’t yet know anything about each other. The team behind this research also suggest that the social bonding effect of singing may even have been vital in enabling modern humans to sustain larger social networks than their evolutionary ancestors. And that, in turn, may have helped them colonise risky environments worldwide. Those early singers were no slackers.

When you sing with other people your heartbeats sychronise – which may explain why singing together can create a sense of shared perspective. Choral singing can certainly improve mood, enhance quality of life, and lead to greater happiness, reduced stress and better emotional well-being. But, whether you sing alone or with others, the simple act of singing raises your heart rate variability, which in turn improves both your well-being and social cognition.

And we think that singing with someone else improves your social intelligence. with, again, an impact on well-being. We're currently developing research with neuroscientists at University College London to examine brain activity during joint singing, and its impact on interaction and well-being.

As you might have gathered, I find the science fascinating. I find it hugely exciting to understand what happens in our brains and bodies when we sing, and how we can use that to enhance our lives at work or at home.

But, in some ways, we don’t need the science.

Singing is thought to be how we first communicated, even before we had speech. It's found across the world – a truly global phenomenon. It's a fundamental to the human condition. So why not give it a whirl? Even if you find it stressful you'll probably be boosting your resilience! And all you need is yourself.

This piece is an excerpt from our session for Roffey Park Institute's Well-being Forum in November 2017. Do drop us a line if you'd like to find out more about the session or our research.

Get to the point – tell me a story

Image by Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It's not a contradiction. We know from experience (and now science) that stories are more effective than facts if you want someone to connect with your message. Storytelling helps engage people in your vision, from one customer to an entire nation. Or at least enough of a nation to swing an election.*

The term 'storytelling' has been bandied about so much it's in danger of not living up to its own myth. (Ah, the irony.) But to me, it's simply a way of harnessing the emotional capital that lies at the heart of what you do, and why it matters.

A compelling story communicates the emotional core of your message. When you hear it, it creates a simulation of reality in your brain. That helps clients and colleagues to act on what they've heard, because they're engaged both intellectually and emotionally. They understand why they should care. And that's a powerful tool.

If you're interested in the neuroscience of storytelling, you might like to read this. And if you're interested in the practice, you might like to come to our Effective Storytelling session on Saturday 22nd October in Central London. No votes, just stories.

*Okay, so Michelle Obama isn't President. But she is a masterful, and vote-winning, storyteller.

Find out how to tell your own compelling stories. Sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What lies beneath? Get your brain scanned and find out!

'B0005622 Enhanced MRI scan of the head ' by Mark Lythgoe & Chloe Hutton / Wellcome Images, licenced under CC  BY-NC-ND 2.0

'B0005622 Enhanced MRI scan of the head' by Mark Lythgoe & Chloe Hutton / Wellcome Images, licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We're hugely excited to be working with neuroscientists at University College London (UCL) and Ashridge Business School to investigate the science behind singing. The UCL pilot will be one of the first in an emerging field that explores why social interaction is so important to health and well-being. And the Ashridge research will valuably contribute to our understanding of both resilience and learning. Both have potentially exciting applications in the workplace, education and health.

We're recruiting potential participants now while we nervously await the outcome of our funding bids. So, if you've ever fancied finding out what's really going on inside, now's your chance! We're looking for participants of all backgrounds, and particularly scientists.

UCL RESEARCH

Using fRMI scanners, we'll look at what happens in the brain when you sing, how it differs from speech, and why many people find that singing together creates social bonds.

We're looking for 30 adults who:

  • consider themselves to be novice singers
  • haven't had any training, including singing in choirs
  • don't consider themselves entirely tone deaf!
  • are aged between 18 and 40 years
  • aren't claustrophobic – scanners are a fairly tight fit!
  • are based in or can easily get to central London

On the day, you'll start off by singing with Kamala face-to-face. You'll then get in the scanner, and sing with her (via headphones) while your brain activity is scanned. It'll take about an hour of your time.

ASHRIDGE RESEARCH

Using heart rate variance monitors, we'll look at what happens in the brain when you sing in public, and whether it enhances personal resilience.

We're looking for 30 adults who:

  • are novice, amateur (e.g. sing in choirs), or semi-pro/professional singers
  • are aged 18+
  • are based in or can easily get to central London

On the day, you'll sing together, led by Kamala. You'll then have an opportunity to lead each other in singing, and sing a solo (yep, a solo!). You'll wear a small heart rate variance monitor throughout all the activities. It'll take about a day of your time.

If you're interested in taking part in either study you'll need to have a quick chat with Kamala over the phone so we can check you're happy to go ahead. Do drop her a line if you'd like to find out more, with no obligation to take part!