If you’ve ever walked past “Story Time” at a local library or book store and seen an otherwise energetic group of preschoolers sitting quietly, hanging onto the storyteller’s every word, you’ve seen the power of storytelling in action. And if you asked those same preschoolers what the story was about later, most could provide you with an accurate description. So, the question is why does storytelling work? How can it grab and maintain our attention and also help us learn better?
It all comes down to how the brain processes information. When we take in information through the senses (our ears and eyes, for example) it is processed in our sensory memory. Some is immediately forgotten (as sensory memory can only hold information for a few seconds), but some information we deem useful is stored in our working memory. However, without reinforcement, the information is forgotten instead of being saved to our long-term memory. This is where storytelling comes in.
Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968)
Consider bullet points in a presentation. Listening to and viewing a presentation activates the language processing parts in the brain. We decode words. We understand the meaning of the words, but that’s all that occurs, brain function-wise. However, when that same information is crafted into a story, more parts of the brain are activated–in fact, the same parts are activated as if we were experiencing the event. And experience reinforces what is stored in the working memory and encodes it into long-term memory. Instructors know that hands-on application of clinical skills helps students learn more fully. Experience acts as the same reinforcer in the working memory.
From a learning perspective, this is incredibly helpful, because we know experience is a great teacher—and that stories craft a narrative that can be called upon when the learner needs to recall this information on the job.
“Stories are the single best vehicle we have to transfer our ideas to one another. Stories trigger a release of neurochemicals that force us to pay attention to speakers, empathize with them, understand them, and get excited about their ideas.”
Adapted from Sternberg, 2017
Storytelling allows the learner to paint a picture in their head, which creates a reality and reinforces the meaning. Using storytelling in your classroom can “plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”
If we want our learners to truly come away with the knowledge to do their jobs, then storytelling is essential. Storytelling allows our brains to connect the dots, to find the meaning and the relevance of the information to ourselves and our own experiences.
Wired for Cause and Effect
What is it about story that impacts what and how well we learn? The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect — a narrative from point A to point B. We look for meaning to understand our world which is found in the narratives we construct. The people in our lives are the characters of the various storylines that make up our day.
Not only does storytelling light up more areas of the brain, the storyteller’s and the listeners’ brain waves become aligned. A study at Drexel University used tool called fNIRS (functional near- infrared spectroscopy) to study the brains of two people causally speaking with each other. The researchers’ found that the listener’s brain mirrors a speaker’s brain when the speaker relays a story from their own experience. This study supports the findings of Princeton University neuroscientist and researcher Uri Hasson. Hasson refers to the effect of brain wave syncing “neural entrainment.”
For this reason, it’s essential to enhance your curriculum with stories. In next week’s blog post we’ll look at some steps you can take to become a more effective storyteller in the classroom!
Atkinson, R.C. and Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Human Memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes.” In Spence, K.W. and Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation, (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.
Brechman, Jean M., “Narrative “Flow”: A Model of Narrative Processing and its Impact on Information Processing, Knowledge Acquisition and Persuasion” (2010). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 204. http://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations/204
Gram, T. (2016). Seeking Evidence: Using the Science of Learning to Guide your eLearning Development. Presentation to eACH Conference (eLearning Alliance of Canadian Hospitals),
Sternberg, M. (2017) The Science of Storytelling [Infographic]. Retrieved from https://www.onespot.com/blog/infographic-the-science-of-storytelling
 Gallo, C. (2018, June). Stories literally put our brain waves in sync. Retrieved from https://qz.com/work/1298571/stories-literally-put-our-brain-waves-in-sync/
 Widrich, L. (2019) The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains. Retrieved from https://buffer.com/resources/science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains
 Harrison, K. (2015, January). A Good Presentation Is About Data and Story. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateharrison/2015/01/20/a-good-presentation-is-about-data-and-story/#1f9a2f54450f
 Widrich, L. (2019) The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains. Retrieved from https://lifehacker.com/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-5965703