Image: Natalia Goncharova, 1910, Khorovad, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
In his recent TED Talk, Princeton professor Uri Hasson investigates what he calls “a device that can record my memories, my dreams, my ideas and transmit them to your brain.” Drawing on his research, Hasson argues that this “game-changing technology” already exists – that it has existed for thousands of years, though we are only now learning to understand how it works.
The technology is “human communication” and, most important, “effective storytelling.”
Hasson’s lab studies “brain responses to natural, real-life events.” A neuroscientist, Hasson 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, much more than language and facts, not only to relay information but to align themselves with one another. In other words, if I tell you a story, both of our brains process and understand that story in the same way.
Using fMRI scans, Hasson monitors brain activity for patterns. The scans showed him that, when a number of subjects were told the same story, their brains operated “in a very similar way across all listeners.” While brains react similarly to many kinds of simple stimuli – flashing colors, individual words – Hasson explains that only story sparks “responses deeper into the brain [in] higher-order areas.” His evidence also indicates that what is being transmitted is not “words or sounds.” When we tell one another a story, we transmit meaning.
However, Hasson is quick to point out that transmitting meaning requires that we start from common ground. The same story transmits the same way in different languages – but if we come to the story from different, fixed contexts, then we don’t align. “Alignment,” he says, “depends not only on our ability to understand the basic concept; it also depends on our ability to develop common ground and understanding and shared belief systems. Because we know that in many cases, people understand the exact same story in very different ways.”
I am intrigued and engaged by Hasson’s research – but not surprised. His findings reflect my powerful sense that, when I hear (or experience) a good story, I am briefly connected with others who have encountered it, including generations past. The findings also align with participants’ consistent responses to Books@Work seminars. Story creates an opportunity 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 shared vocabulary. In one seminar, 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 to that story and those they told in response to it. With another group, Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk provoked a discussion of different work styles—including 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.
But not all stories align immediately. 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 said just that: “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 perceive one another more clearly. As another participant told us, “this program 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, in fact, worries that our overexposure to 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” that helps us communicate with and understand one another. But Hasson reminds us what our participants share time and time again: that another basic, ancient technology – dialogue – helps us to overcome these barriers. As Hasson says, “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.” In other words, we need more meaningful conversation – conversation that acknowledges and bridges differences, that helps us make commonalities even from our disagreements. Is it any wonder that Hasson’s research resonates so deeply?