Comments 23

Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative

Why We Tell Stories - the Science of Narrative

Click to View Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative.

I was pleasantly surprised to come across a WordPress blog titled Why Story Matters by Mike Dimartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show I’ve written about previously on Ekostories. Discussing a video from the World Science Festival titled Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative in one of his posts, Dimartino teases out some fascinating insights explored during the involved panel discussion. As Ekostories is focused on exploring the potential of stories to generate connections and environmental understanding, I would like to share his key takeaways and comment briefly on them.

Stories for Change

Research suggests that story has the ability to change us. This is a powerful idea which we can see play out in places like advertising and politics. We can be swayed to buy a particular product or vote for a particular person based on the story the advertiser or politician tells us.

Stories that shape attitudes and behaviour occur all around us. Many successful forms of advertising rely on narratives to trigger emotional connections with particular products and services. In the political realm, campaigns regularly construct narratives that emphasize change or stability to appeal to prospective voters. Elections are often won or lost by a campaign’s ability to depict hopeful candidates as charismatic and decisive leaders, even though in many instances those qualities have little to do with real policy decisions or track records.

Stories for Understanding

Fiction helps us to create better mental models of each other. This helps us empathize with others more easily. Researchers discovered that parts of the brain that are activated for understanding someone are also activated by story. With fiction, unlike in real life, we can understand why a character behaves a certain way (even if we don’t condone it) because we are aware of his or her inner thoughts and deepest secrets.

The ability of stories to cultivate empathy and understanding for others is something I’ve touched on in past Ekostories. In 2010, neuroscientists at Princeton discovered that storytellers and listeners engage in a process of “neural coupling” in which their brain activities become effectively synchronized. The more “neurally-coupled” they are, the greater their understanding of each other becomes. When we read an absorbing book or hear a riveting anecdote, we become more attuned to the motivations and actions of others. This has fascinating and significant implications. Want to have your points and ideas understood? Tell stories.

Stories for Meaning

Humans are designed to find meaning. Stories can help us find meaning in what seems at times to be a meaningless world.

I’ve quoted filmmaker Stanley Kubrick while exploring the comic  There’s a Hair in My Dirt! It seems relevant once again here:

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent. If we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death, our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light. (From Wikipedia – Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, 2001)

I believe stories can serve as delivery vehicles for that light. Whether they are drawn from scientific fact, religious texts, or personal experiences, narratives help us create patterns and meaning in what can appear to be a random and chaotic world. Human beings need stories, are innately drawn to them, cannot live well without them. I’m not sure where to place the need for stories on the Maslow hierarchy of needs, but I suspect they may be closer to the bottom than the top of the pyramid.

Stories for Bonding

Stories are the social glue that hold a tribe or society together.

For good or for ill, stories have the power to unite people towards a common cause or purpose. Grand narratives can encompass entire paradigms of thought and behaviour. The grand narrative that drives modern capitalist society is founded upon assumptions of continuous progress and expansion. As I wrote in my exploration of the short film Overview, much of the ecological crisis and our existential distress may be due to the deterioration of that particular narrative.

Stories for Testing

Stories are simulations of the social world. Keith Oatley describes stories like they are flight simulators or virtual realities, where we can test out different social situations without the social risks.

As I wrote in my last entry about The Direction of the Road, I enjoy speculative fiction because they can serve as thought-experiments, what if scenarios that can generate potentially realistic and occasionally fantastical worlds. But even “normal” fiction can engage our imaginations, get us to think before acting, immerse us in various hypotheticals without risk. From an evolutionary perspective, this propensity for producing and consuming stories makes tremendous sense. Prehistoric cave-dwellers can test-drive the best ways to kill a mammoth or to defend against a predator in their minds before actually having to commit to those potentially dangerous actions. But stories remain indispensable today.  Stories can help sharpen and hone our mental faculties to face an increasingly complex world, allowing us to break out of patterns of conventional thinking and tackle new challenges in innovative ways.

If you have an hour to spare, I encourage you to check out the video. The panel discussion gets underway around 15 minutes in and includes Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides, with public radio producer and broadcast journalist Jay Allison as the moderator.

Related Ekostories:


  1. So very interesting!
    Some of the best teachers are exactly the ones that … just tell stories!
    And as for children stories, would you say they are for bonding? for testing? They are so important in the way that children come to relate to others and to the environment, moulding their attitudes, behaviours, preferences and aspirations…

    • Hmm, I guess that would depend on the stories themselves. It’s true, I can definitely see children stories being used to establish rules on how society functions, to cultivate empathy and good conduct toward others. For me, good children stories function primarily as mental play for developing creative and imaginative thinking. I wrote briefly about what I found to be a good children’s story not too long ago. Would love to hear what you think:

      A Boy and His Plants: The Curious Garden

  2. One thing that I have observed living in the Bluegrass State is that an individual is best remembered by the stories associated with them. These stories don’t need to be factual or even positive stories…what is most important is that there are tales to be told. Stories seem to have “lives” all their own.

    • Much easier to remember a good yarn than a powerpoint presentation, isn’t it? Yes, that’s a crucial point. Stories don’t have to be based in fact, but the good ones are grounded in some sort of universal truth that makes them memorable and enduring. As you say, they can live on.

  3. Love this piece, Isaac, and totally agree. Although I maintain a blog (barely), I prefer to write fiction, and most of my fiction is environmentally based. The impact can potentially be much greater – much more meaningful, and longer lasting. I sometimes wonder if our ecological deterioration is due, in part, to creating a complex world (that narrative story) that focuses too much on reductionist tendencies – with much of science focusing on the minutiae and losing site of the whole (especially in nutritional science) – leaving us unbalanced and disconnected from nature, the stories we tell ourselves no longer part of the planetary whole, directed inwardly instead. Hard to explain in a short comment here, but I suspect you’ll know what I’m getting at…

    • Hi James, thank you for your thoughtful ruminations. I totally get what you’re saying 🙂 A couple of points:

      1.) I’m personally unsure if stories are more affective if they are fiction versus non-fiction. I know fiction is more popular, but the narrative non-fiction and memoir genres are also more than capable at telling really good stories.

      2.) About science, reductionist thinking, and story – Dimartino wonders in his post if scientific exploration of stories may reduce their impact by deconstructing the mysteries of them. Like him, I don’t think it will, but I am also reminded of a passage in a poem by Wordsworth:

      Our meddling intellect
      Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:
      We murder to dissect.

      3.) Disconnectedness from the whole – I’m not sure if you’ve had the chance to check out my piece on the short film Overview, but at the end of the post there is an excellent short trailer for a film called Continuum that explores the need for a new story that embraces unity and wholeness:

      A cognitive shift: The Overview Effect

  4. I wish I had an hour to spare. Perhaps I’ll click back to this when I do. I agree about the need for stories. I loved this: “Humans are designed to find meaning. Stories can help us find meaning in what seems at times to be a meaningless world.” Stories engage faster than a lecture. Is it any wonder that engaging nonfiction (like the type produced by Malcolm Gladwell) sells faster than straight lecture-based nonfiction?

    • The video is one of those things I had in the background while I was doing other things.

      About stories: I recently thought back to the old non-fiction books I had as a kid about dinosaurs and prehistoric animals, and the ones I still recall vividly to this days are the ones that are written as stories. I actually tracked a couple of them down and they’re still as great as I remembered them to be!

  5. Great post – and I love that Kubrick quote. I’ve come to that sane conclusion so far, that there is no inherent meaning on the universe, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create meaning. You’re right, stories do help us give meaning to life. How powerful.

    • And that’s coming from someone who knows how to tell meaningful and powerful stories. I think on a very basic level, stories are how our brains are wired to organize and retrieve information; meaning may be an emergent property of that system.

  6. Russell Collier says

    I need an hour or two uninterrupted to think about this some more… will be back to comment in earnest. Meanwhile, I have added this page to my Pearltrees, so I can find it again quickly.

    • I would expect nothing less than a thoughtful and involved answer from you, Russell. 🙂 Thanks for visiting!

      • Russell Collier says

        Ever since we traded in our ancestral memories (aka instinct aka genetic memories) for a bigger, more plastic brain, our species has been faced with the problem of how to communicate important information from person to person and generation to generation. After all, with a fading instinctual response, we could no longer rely on the children inheriting what they needed to know.

        I think stories became that mechanism. Stories have the power to evoke echoes of our ancestral memories, awakening Jungian archetypes within us to respond. Story-telling is so effective at getting messages across, it is the primary method advertisers use to sell their wares and services. If you think about it, all advertising today is based on a combination of spoken words, sounds, and images, all carefully crafted to “place” a potential consumer into a specific “situation” where the product or service helps bring about a desirable conclusion.

        When I tend our weekly table at the local Farmers Market, the single most effective tool I’ve got to get a sale from a “maybe customer” is to tell stories about how this chicken was raised, how that garlic grew, or how I prepared a specific dish using exactly these ingredients.

        Thinking back to our studies of the Señores Varela and Maturana in Systems Thinking, I am reminded that ultimately, as sentient beings who conduct personal transactions with the world, we must have a common method of transmitting information across cultural and perhaps even linguistic distances. I have coem to believe stories are the primary method we have to do so: stories that evoke remnants of genetic memories, stories that invoke archetypes within us.

        There’s more that your article stimulated in me, but it is now time for this damp farmer to go back out into the rain and muck out the squishy, smelly chicken barn. (buck-buckCAW-buckbuck)

        • Doing my thesis, that’s one of the things I discovered at the farmers’ market. Vendors tried to develop narratives that resonated with the public, and some were able to tell them well. It’s always the stories that first sold the food, opened the door for awareness and change.

          Touching on Jung, I wonder if stories somehow tap into those ancestral memories and deep archetypes that you spoke of, into the “collective unconscious” as he calls it, that all humans share. Maybe that’s why some stories and myths are so powerful and universal.

          Appreciate your ruminations amidst wrangling chickens. The door is always open for other musings. 🙂

  7. In the area of adult instruction (as well as pedagogy), providing practical stories and eliciting stories from adult learners on the subject that are learning more about, for certain provides memorable value and lessons learned.

    One of the things certain disciplines, such as engineering is highly criticized disregarding the common pool of stories, human experiences for any piece of building, transportation infrastructure they design and build. Or more to point, certain disciplines such as engineering, simply do not embed in their mandatory curriculum on how to translate mathematical formulae and the science of their work, into a practical, daily human users experiences.

    • Hi Jean, thanks for the interesting perspective.

      Following from your thoughts, do you believe that these disciplines are missing out through their disconnectedness from human stories? If there are negative consequences, how can they be remedied? How can stories be incorporated into these fields that work in the realm of the abstract?

      • I am a long time cyclist and in the past have been involved in cycling advocacy. My partner is: an engineer by training but a few years after graduation and after a few years in engineering, he gradually shifted to business analysis and management roles. He went onto his MBA.

        He is an uber cycling advocate (in Vancouver, also in Toronto when we lived there). He is particularily critical of transportation engineers who he knows intimately the nature of their formal training and how engineers are trained to think, problem-solve…..on materials science, physics….but not on human behaviour and response to transportation systems as users….

        To remedy this, can sometimes take an astute (or bored, frustrated :)) insider from within the discipline to step outside of the box and borrow from disciplines of psychology, social psychology, marketing and communications. Part of effective marketing is: telling the right stories in an engaging manner.

        I concur…because I myself worked as information professional in engineering sectors for nearly 15 yrs. in part of my career. I have an English degree and a grad. in library science. So clearly I was a cat among a pile of dogs within the technical organizations that I worked for.

        The insider stepping outside to tell good “stories” that marry abstract concepts with daily /common life experiences may happen because the narrator wants to seriously make a difference to cause some change. Or at the very least, motivate their audience to take positive action.

        The famed David Suzuki, PhD scientist-now TV journalist/broadcaster, environmental advocate is a great example: he has personal passion to want to make a difference.

        Yes, my partner loves cycling that much…he will expound on social marketing of cycling for transportation. Not just on technical details on cycling infrastructure design. I’ve asked him to quit writing too often in 3rd person. Instead use his personal voice “I”… more often now.

        We can’t talk in third person all the time….our time on Earth is short. Make it personal for greatest impact.

        • I appreciate your detailed answer. I don’t remember who I was speaking with, but we came to the conclusion that usually the technological portion of the solution is by far the easiest part to come up with. The difficulty lies in getting the will and consent to make the solution work. People are just so tricky to deal with.

          You bring up an interesting point about being an insider. I’ve been so focused on stepping outside to explore different perspectives that I haven’t really explored the people who have the expertise and communication skills to speak to a broader audience. I have looked at a storytellers that fit that description, but not many. Perhaps I’ll mull that over a little bit.

          Thanks very much.

  8. Oh, this was interesting!
    Over the years I have learnt that young activists find reminders of the overview helpful, and I lend out lots of Kim Stanley Robinson – 60 Days and Counting, for climate change, and the Mars Trilogy is great for the creation of community values, someone on Amazon complained it was more about Earth than Mars (well d’oh!) and it covers multi-nationals becoming trans-nationals in a way that makes sense to people who struggle with the idea a company can “invade” a country…but most importantly the Green Mars section on creation of the power structure gets across that everything must be discussed and decided, because everything affects everything, so yes, personal inheritance law affects aquifer sharing…if you’re familiar with the books that does make sense! Sorry I am a bit worded out after refuting passive agressive comments on my blog about being disqualified to comment on art because I am disabled (you couldn’t make it up!?!) even though I am an artist…grrrr..[trent uni grad shows post if any one is intrigued]
    But I also agree well written non-fiction can teach well too, I really like Brian Fagan’s ‘The Little Ice Age’ and ‘The Long Summer’, his style makes lots of facts connect for me, and as a stitcher, I love him for pointing out that the most important tool for survival of the last Ice Age was the needle! (using the skins of many animals meant the most protection/flexibility/mobility for the most successful hunting)
    Thanks for visiting my blog, I’m glad to have found yours 🙂

    • It’s funny you mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson. I have read Red Mars (but not the others in the trilogy) and know exactly what you’re talking about. I won’t say too much more because I’m going to be doing a bit on him soon. Stay tuned!

      I find gripping non-fiction has the ability to make us see our world in a different way – the good ones have a way of coming at you sideways. Narrative is also important – information is infinitely more effective if it’s delivered in story form versus just factoids.

      Thanks for visiting!

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