Your Brain on Stories

The brain is wired for stories, but what exactly happens to it when we hear and tell stories?

In 2008, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who used to work at Harvard University, gave a TED talk in which she tells the story of the day she had a stroke in her 30s (7). The TED talk is titled “My Stroke of Insight”, and it is among the most popular TED talks, with almost 29 million views as of March 2023. Her talk is engaging and very influential, with vivid descriptions of the morning of her stroke. She commands the stage and is even able to bring people to tears with her story. Why? What is going on in our brains that makes us so captivated and moved by her story?

As it turns out, it seems that recent research into how our brains process and connect our memories may tell us the answer. The main focus of memory research in the past was focused on how memories act independently. But because stories are an essential part of our culture and how we communicate valuable information, recent research on memory and learning in neuroscience has focused more on how we connect our memories and how they interact together, which is what stories do. When you think about it, stories are a big part of our lives: books, movies, TV shows, news articles, music, speeches (like TED talks) – the list goes on. Why is it that we cry at a sad story (or even a happy one); how do our brains experience what the characters do?

The Brain’s Storyteller

Julius Caesar Arantius is a name many may not be familiar with, but because of his role in identifying a structure in the brain that is crucial for memory, it is probably a good time to learn a little bit about him.

Julius Caesar Arantius was born in Bologna, Italy, in 1530, and received a doctorate in medicine at Bologna in May 1556 (1). Because he was an outstanding surgeon, he was recruited as a lecturer of surgery at the University of Bologna. Arantius became one of the prominent anatomists in Bologna and discovered many different structures of the brain while dissecting it, including a structure he decided to name the hippocampus.

Hippocampus is the Latin word for seahorse, and because its shape resembles a seahorse, this ultimately became the common name of the structure discovered by Arantius. The hippocampus’ main function is the formation of memories from our interactions with the world. Recently, research has also found that the hippocampus is responsible for our ability to understand stories by connecting our memories. By weaving together two or more memories, the hippocampus is able to make a cohesive story from what we have experienced (2;3). To demonstrate this phenomenon, one study compared functional MRI imaging results between two groups: one group of participants heard two parts of a story that were coherent, that made sense together; and the other group was told stories that were not-connected (example of story parts used shown to the left). Both groups of participants were tested while learning the story parts and retrieving the two parts; there were a few significant findings that came from this study. 

First, researchers saw more similarities in the patterns of activity in the hippocampus when learning two pieces of a coherent story versus less to none in the ones that are not connected. Because of this, researchers believe that “When you get to the second event, you’re reaching back to the first event and embedding part of it in the new memory.” Essentially, you are weaving them together.

Second, when researchers then compared the retrieval of these story parts, the participants in the group who heard coherent stories also had more activation in their hippocampus when recalling the story parts. Interestingly enough, the fMRI results showed that when recalling the coherent story, there was always more hippocampal activation when recalling the second part of the story. Again, when presented with a coherent story, we see that the hippocampus–our little seahorse–is the weaver of memories.

Putting the Whole Brain to Work

So we now know the hippocampus plays a central role in weaving together our stories, making distinct memories a coherent whole. However, what else is happening in a listener’s brain when they hear a story?

To put it briefly: a lot. And when I say a lot, I mean the entire brain. Have you ever heard an engaging story, and thought about the character’s actions, doing what they do, feeling what they do? Well, this is the story behind how a narrative engages our whole brain. When we listen to a PowerPoint presentation with bulleted facts, the two language centers in our brain show activity. However, when we listen to an engaging story with sensory and motor components, as well as metaphors, much more of our brain gets involved (4). When we hear metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” or “He had leathery hands”, regions of our brain that react to sensory stimuli become active. Whatever the characters are doing and sensing in a story, our brains activate in the same manner as if they were experiencing these things as well. When there are strong emotional moments, a region of the brain known as the insula, responsible for emotional responses, reacts. In essence, when we tell and listen to stories, the storyteller’s and listeners’ brains become synchronized, also known as neural coupling. 

This phenomenon, neural coupling, seems to only occur during successful communication between a speaker and listener, however. Results from another study seem to confirm this. The brain activity of both participants in a conversation was measured using fMRI imaging; this time, what the researchers were interested in was the brain activity of both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication (5). What they found was this phenomenon of neural coupling: their brain activity was synchronized, or coupled both spatially (same locations in the brain activated) and temporally (brains activated in a consistent manner of time).

But, as stated before, this synchronization only occurred with successful communication. When communication goes awry, the synchronization between the speaker’s and the listener’s brains vanishes. How could they measure successful communication? Story comprehension: they found that the greater the degree of neural coupling in the speaker-listener pair, the greater the listener understood the story. What this means is that after hearing a story told to them, researchers asked listeners what the story told to them was about to gauge comprehension. As it turns out, listeners who had a better recollection of the story after the fact showed more synchronization with the speaker. So, they argue, neural coupling and alignment of neural processes, spatially and temporally, seem to be important in the way our brains communicate information. 

The Power of a Story

An engaging story can be a powerful one, engaging your whole brain and connecting you to another person.  By weaving together memories of what we hear that make sense together, effective communication between people is possible. When this occurs, our brains understand and get really engaged with the story and the storyteller, which is the phenomenon of neural coupling. 

The reason Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk was so influential and popular is that she is a storyteller. She tells the story of the morning of her stroke, from the moment she got up to when she found herself in the hospital so that it all makes sense together and is connected: it results in successful communication. Throughout the talk, she describes how she was able to feel at one with the universe and peace, even in such a dire circumstance, because of how and where the stroke was affecting her brain (the entire left hemisphere of her brain). At the end of her talk, her message to us was that we all have this peace and euphoria inside of us, we just need to train our brains to use it more. Her final remarks of the talk are:

“ I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.”

Because she tells her story in such vivid detail, taking us through her apartment on that day, her thoughts and actions at every important moment, we are able to connect the dots of what she is saying and make one cohesive story of her talk. We are seeing what she was seeing that morning. We are feeling what she is describing. Because of neural coupling, our whole brains are being put to work. In this way, she is able to influence us and get her point across to us. That is the power of stories. We weave them. We absorb them. We feel them. Stories are how we connect our lives together, and how we can connect to and influence others.