The art of storytelling: why we relate to characters.

Posted on under Today's research

For thousands of years, humans have relied on storytelling to engage, to share emotions and to relate personal experiences. Now, psychologists are exploring mechanisms deep within the brain to better understand just what happens when we communicate.

New research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, suggests that no matter how a narrative is expressed—through words, gestures or drawings—our brains relate best to the characters, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist of each story.

What the researchers say: “We tell stories in conversation each and every day,” explains the lead author of the study. “Very much like literary stories, we engage with the characters and are wired to make stories people-oriented.”

The question researchers set out to answer was how, exactly, narrative ideas are communicated using three different forms of expression, and to identify a so-called narrative hub within the brain.

For the study, researchers scanned the brains of participants using fMRI and presented them with short headlines. For example, “Surgeon finds scissors inside of patient” or “Fisherman rescues boy from freezing lake.” They were then asked to convey the stories using speech, gestures or drawing.

Researchers found that no matter what form of story telling the participants used, the brain networks that were activated were the “theory-of-the-mind” network (the neurological systems that enable our understanding of people as mental beings, each with his or her own mental states–such as thoughts, wants, motives, beliefs, intentions and feelings).

“Aristotle proposed 2,300 years ago that plot is the most important aspect of narrative, and that character is secondary,” says Brown. “Our brain results show that people approach narrative in a strongly character-centered and psychological manner, focused on the mental states of the protagonist of the story.” Plot, or facts, are secondary.

So, what? The interesting thing about this study is that it focuses on what the human system (not just the brain but the whole of those neurogenetic elements that we now classify as “mind”) is primarily interested in—the actions and emotions of other human beings. We’ve known for some time that learning is deepened and more easily remembered if it is communicated by way of a story.

We now know that this is because the system is not interested in the facts of what is learned—it is interested in how it is learned. And the most powerful how is relating the facts we want to impart in the context of a story. We remember the information as a by-product of remembering the story