Storytelling as “Game-Changing Technology”

Storytelling as “Game-Changing Technology”

In a great TED Talk, Princeton professor Uri Hasson describes what he calls “a device that can record my memories, my dreams, my ideas and transmit them to your brain.” Hasson argues that this “game-changing technology” already exists. It has existed for thousands of years, though we are only now beginning to understand how it works.

That technology is human communication and, specifically, what Hasson calls “effective storytelling.”

Hasson’s lab studies “brain responses to natural, real-life events.” As a  neuroscientist, he is interested in cognition – how the brain works to make sense of the world we live in.

Hasson’s research on storytelling and listening reveals that people use stories not only to relay information but also to align themselves with one another. He demonstrates this with an fMRI of five brains.. When his research participants listen to a story, their brains light up at the same time, with the same intensity.

Hasson describes this as “alignment,” or the phenomenon of multiple brains mimicking one another’s activity. Yet, Hasson points out that sharing meaning requires that we start from common ground. To reach “alignment,” we have to both understand the concept of the story and recognize each other’s beliefs. Alignment only occurs when we can find common ground.

I am intrigued and engaged by Hasson’s research – but not surprised. His findings reflect my powerful sense that, when I hear or read a story, I am connected with every other person who has heard that same story. But we know that in many cases, people understand the exact same story in very different ways. Maybe stories don’t just illuminate alignment but actually create opportunities for people to find common ground and see their differences.

Stories—the books our participants read, as well as the stories they tell – become a powerful opportunity for alignment, and with it, a shared vocabulary. In one Books@Work program, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” offered an opportunity to discuss change and leadership. Now, when the participants jokingly refer to Esteban (after the handsome drowned man), they connect back to their shared experience and to what they learned about each other.

With another group, Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk provoked a discussion of different work styles.  The participants even shared stories about colleagues’ preferences when they travel for business. For this group, asking one another “did you get a window seat?” became a metaphor for reminding each other to take time to look around and recharge.

Not all stories align their readers immediately. Books@Work participants are also consistently surprised by the varied perspectives people bring to each story, echoing Hasson’s point that “people understand the exact same story in different ways.” In fact, one of our participants told us,  “we walked into the room having read the same story, only to discover that none of us had read the same story.”

Recognizing these differences allows participants to deepen their social connections and feelings of involvement. Another participant said, sharing stories “opens up your mind to the possibility that there is another way to handle things or see things, and that not everybody is the same.”

Hasson worries that too much difference of opinion puts us at risk of becoming too divided. Stories can be manipulated and, because of the way our brains work, it’s easy to lose the “common ground.” But he also reminds us that another basic, ancient technology helps us to overcome these barriers: dialogue, or, as Hassan describes it, “a more natural way of talking, in which I am speaking and I am listening, and together we are trying to come to a common ground and new ideas.”

We need more dialogue and meaningful conversation – conversation that discovers and bridges differences, surfaces and emphasizes our common ground. Through story, human connection not only makes us feel accepted, but it also gives us a better understanding of the world around us.

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Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.