Friday, January 10, 2020

A story about Storytelling, the narrative and Neural Coupling

Well, I'd like to take you back to 2010.  It was a big year around the world.

Lots of things happened.

UK Telegraph image of the burning platform

2010 was a year for disasters, for example, the BP Deep Horizon oil drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing eleven workers and causing massive oil pollution, approx 134 million gallons, of the marine environment.

Brussels Airport - solarimpulse__DSC8994

2010 was a year for technology successes, for example, the Solar Impulse, a Swiss solar electric aeroplane, was successful in achieving the first 24 hr flight for a solar plane.

2010 was also a big year for the science around storytelling.

A Princeton Campus Bldg - Karl Thomas Moore
Let me take you to Princeton University, one of America's favourite and highly respected Ivy League universities in New Jersey.

Three researchers, Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA, that recorded their findings about storytelling and neural coupling.

Here's the link for the academic paper:

What did they do in the depths of Princeton Uni?

They organised an fMRI scanner and recruited One native-English speaker, one native-Russian speaker, and 12 native-English listeners, ages 21–30 years.

First of all they recorded the two speakers telling a story while they scanned the neural activity in their brains. Then they told the listeners that they were going to listen to a story while having their brain scanned and they were told to "please pay attention because you will be asked to write down the story immediately after the scan."

They then compared the scans. What did they find? - neural coupling.

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When a listener was actively engaged in the story, the same areas of the brain lit up as the person telling the story.

When a listener couldn't engage in a story, for example, the story was told in Russian and the listener didn't understand Russian, no neural coupling occurred. In other words it wasn't enough for a storyteller to be telling with feeling or rhythm, for example, the listener had to be provided with the right information the right narrative.

Also, when a listener was actively engaged in a story, the listener would begin to predict what was going to happen in the story ahead of the storyteller. The listeners neural processing happened before the tellers.

Perhaps the most important part of the research however, in terms of communication and in terms of storytelling is that, Stephens, Silbert and Hasson showed that, the greater the degree of neural coupling between teller and listener, the greater the listener understood the story.

Want your listeners to understand? Tell a story to them in a way that encourages them to engage. 

In the Story Space

Well for storytellers this was a big event but also no real surprise. Storytellers know when their audience is engaged. We use our own jargon to describe it - 'in the story space', 'hooked', 'right there'. Adults are usually too self-conscious, but so often children will sitting listening to a story, totally absorbed, mouth open, off with the story somewhere.

 We know that storytelling is a two way process - tellers and audience actively engaged. We also know how to bring stories alive for our listeners. How to take them on the journey.


So forget disasters like the BP Deep Horizon tragedy, forget triumphs like the Solar Impulse flight, the big news for 2010 was Stephens, Silbert and Hasson at Princeton demonstrating neural coupling with storytelling.

You can do it in your storytelling as well.