There was once a man who told his nephew stories in the park. Together they would sink into the sandbox and the uncle would improvise whatever ideas and images popped into his head. This became a regular occurrence. The nephew got lost in the stories of his uncle – wild, random, wacky creations of his mind. Soon, others in the park were captivated too. They would gather around the sandbox and wait for today’s tale. The uncle would often glance up to find fifty or more people listening to his words. His stories were the simple and creative ones to tell a child. And they were fascinating.
It was the early 1980s. The uncle worked as an oceanographer. He was a scientist in an industry far away from stories. Yet the spectacles he’d created in the park made him rethink the potential of storytelling. He realized something important. If he sat in the sandbox and read out a report from the Department of Energy, people in the park would not gather to hear what he had to say. There was something different about the narrative.
At that moment, he understood the true power of stories.
The uncle realized his stories weren’t fascinating because they were elaborate. Or original. Or well-developed. Not even because he was an exceptional storyteller. He didn’t have a beautiful voice. No especially captivating charisma. It was the story itself. Simply because his words were stories, they held a magic of their own. He saw that people connected with stories in a natural and intrinsic way. And he wanted to know why.
So the uncle left his oceanography career. He’d found a new purpose in life: to prove the power of storytelling through research. At the age of 36, he switched from the life of a scientist to the life of a storyteller. Naturally, his family assumed he was suffering a mid-life crisis. Yet after two years of research and the publishing of his findings, the uncle revolutionized the science of storytelling.
That man was Kendall Haven, author of Story Proof, Marvels of Science, and nine-time winner of the Storytelling World Silver and Gold Award.
Why are we hardwired for stories?
We see the world through stories
Children seem to realize the power of stories as a simple fact. Yet as adults, we seem to forget it. But Kendall’s research has proven the link between stories and brainpower. He has considered storytelling within the fields of psychology, teaching, and learning, along with many others. And he has drawn amazing conclusions.
“Children process the world in story terms, using story as a structure within which to create meaning and understanding.” (Haven)
Not only are children attracted to stories, but they also process the world through them. Before children have learned techniques to deal with life, they naturally revert to storytelling. It is something organic. A wiring of the brain. In our DNA. As adults, we do the same. We are just less aware of it.
But writers, playwrights, and filmmakers tapped into the power of stories long before science. In her TED Talk, SJ Murray explains how we internalize the story of ourselves and those of others. We are all intrinsically interpreting the world through stories. Even when we don’t realize it.
“Scientific research corroborates that our brains process stories like nothing else. That’s because stories tap into our faculties of memory and emotion. We carry stories with us and within us.” (Murray)
Stories have lasted thousands of years for a reason. They exist in all cultures, countries, and generations. There is power in being aware of our hardwired connection to storytelling. Once we realise its potential, we can utilize it.
We learn through stories
Our brains are malleable things. As well as being hardwired, they also change with time and experience. Not only are we are born with an intrinsic connection to stories, but we also learn through them. Kendall conducted an abundance of research on the power of stories in teaching and learning.
“350 studies from fifteen separate fields of science…agree that stories are an effective and efficient vehicle for teaching, for motivating, and for the general communication of factual information, concepts, and tacit information. Not one doubted or questioned the effectiveness of stories!” (Haven, 4)
Research like Kendall’s shows us that we are not only hardwired for stories, we are hardwired to learn from stories. This is not a questionable or controversial conclusion. It is an undisputed understanding between scientists and storytellers.
And it’s not only Kendall who is proving the power of stories. Psychologist Raymond Mar from York University in Canada has also studied the relationship between stories and learning. Outside of the classroom, we adapt our behavior due to our hardwired instinct to learn from stories.
“Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” (Paul)
The power of stories goes beyond books. Kendall took the potential of storytelling into the world of science. Our intrinsic connection to stories can also infiltrate into all areas of our lives. Not just telling a child a story in a sandbox. But in our daily lives. Our relationships. Our creative projects. Our businesses.
Stories make us slow down and listen. And in our modern frantic world, that’s something invaluable.
We survive through stories
“Your brain has been evolutionarily hardwired to think, to understand, to make sense, and to remember in specific story terms and elements.” (Haven)
But the influence of stories goes even deeper than we could imagine. According to Kendall, our ability to interpret and learn from the world through stories is an evolutionary trait. Stories have kept us alive for centuries. Stories have developed us into creative, intelligent beings. Stories are at the heart of the whole human species.
We see the world through stories. We learn through stories. We survive through stories. They are hardwired, intrinsically, malleably, evolutionarily, and woven into our very existence.
Haven, K (n.d). APPLYING THE SCIENCE OF STORY TO THE ART OF COMMUNICATION [online] Kendall Haven. Available at: http://www.kendallhaven.com/ [Accessed 15 August 2019].
Haven, K., 2007. Story Proof: The Science Behind The Startling Power Of Story. Libraries Unlimited.
Murray, SJ. (2014). Hardwired for story. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrtTyEmDLKQ [Accessed 14 August 2019].
Paul, Annie Murphy (2012). Your Brain on Fiction [online] New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?pagewanted=all [Accessed 15 August 2019].