The Superpowers of Storytelling


By Julie Deulen

Below are a few very short stories. As you read them, reflect on the mental and physiological reactions inside of you. Observe your thoughts and feelings.

“I was in a taxi on my way to work in Chicago when my blood glucose level suddenly dropped and I passed out. The taxi driver used all the tricks of his trade to get me to the hospital as quickly as possible. Apparently, he cut through a small park and drove over a median to get me there before it was too late. I know this because after I woke up, my nurse told me that my taxi driver “saved my life” and “physically carried me into the emergency room waiting area,” followed by a police officer who was after him for the said traffic violations. The nurse said, “After the taxi driver explained himself, the police officer shook his hand and left.”

“Losing my infant son was the worst pain I have ever felt. But the feeling I had when I received a phone call from the doctor telling me my baby’s organs saved two other baby’s lives was strange and wonderful like no other feeling in the world.”

“Today, I told my 18 year old grandson that nobody asked me to prom when I was in high school, so I didn’t attend. He showed up at my house this evening dressed in a tuxedo and took me as his date to his prom.”

“Today, while I was browsing in a secondhand bookshop, I found a copy of a book that had been stolen from me when I was a kid. I opened it and saw, on the first page, in familiar hand writing, my own name. It had been a gift from my (now late) grandfather. Next to my name my grandfather wrote, “I hope you rediscover this book someday when you’re older, and it makes you think about the important things in life.”

I invited my friends and coworkers to engage in this same challenge, and these were the thoughts and feeling that surfaced when hearing these stories: hope, elation, relief, surprise, powerful, secure, weighty, human, inspired, beautiful, anger, delight, rumination, sadness, profound, grateful, wise, meaningful. Marvel with me at the superpowers of storytelling. All these thoughts, ideas, and feelings were created through a powerful cause and effect chain that begins with a story and travels with gusto throughout the human brain.

There are few things as influential to the human brain as a story. While we can receive and decode information in many ways, when we hear a story, our brain activates in truly dynamic ways. Consider looking at bullet points on a powerpoint. When we take in this kind of information, our brain activates its centers of language cognition. We then take these words and digest them into something we can derive meaning from. Then we are done, that’s it. The brain is at rest and waits for something more interesting.

Compare this to hearing a story. The same language processing centers come alive, decoding information. But in addition, other regions of our brain activate and interpret the words as if we are experiencing the events of the story in reality.  If a character in the story sprints through the grass in his bare feet, the part of the brain that stimulates the body’s movements, the motor cortex, is activated. If someone tells us a story about delicious food, our sensory cortex activates, just as it does when we actually eat tasty food. This even applies to when the story describes sensory information within metaphors such as, “her voice was refreshing and smooth, like a cold bowl of ice cream.” Our sensory cortex activates and our brain is stimulated as if we are eating a cold bowl of ice cream. The implications for influence, empathy, are education are enormous.

Storytelling allows you to transmit your lived experience into the psyche of another person, and they too will feel the same tactile and emotional responses. Their brains will work towards learning the same lessons, processing, and changing in ways that mirror your experience and outlook. In fact, according to Uri Hasson, researcher from Princeton University, a story is the only way to activate the brain so that the listener turns the information into their own idea and experience. Add to this the fact that hearing a story releases the chemical dopamine in the brain that helps with memory and accuracy, and storytelling takes on some serious superpowers for influence and engagement.

The amazing power of storytelling is that the brain’s response does not differentiate between hearing a story and actually engaging in the very same reality. And yet it goes beyond this. A story can prompt the brain to rework itself, creating significant internal change. When we share a story that has helped shape our thinking or way of life, we can spread the same effect to the people receiving the story. Researchers at Princeton University have shown that the brain of a storyteller will literally sync to the brain of the story receiver. When the storyteller in their study had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, the frontal cortex of the listeners followed suite. In this way, the storyteller has great power to determine the majority of brain activity inside the listener.

If you want to truly influence thoughts and ideas, if you want to undoubtedly teach and motivate people, then embrace the powers of storytelling. The human brain is primed and waiting to sync to your message and transform the inner world of your audience. With all these superpowers, storytelling is the best way to influence change in the outer world.