Storytelling and Brain Science: Why It’s an Effective Learning Tool

The Story

Juana, a trainer for a major pharmaceutical company, is perplexed why the new technicians she trains rarely remember and apply the lab safety rules she discusses. She diligently covers each rule on her PowerPoint asking if there are any questions before moving on to the next subject.

Juana’s colleague Carlos, on the other hand, has had tremendous success with his new technician trainees remembering and applying the safety rules. When Juana found out about Carlos’ success she approached Carlos to ask how he does it. I’m sure the reason is how I deliver the material, he begins. I paint a picture through telling a story of a new technician who forgot some of the safety rules and the unintended consequences that caused.

Carlos shared that learning literature is peppered with phrases such as “stories resonate emotionally with participants, are easier to recall, and ultimately lead to greater behavior change”1.  Also “character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key point a speaker wishes to make and enables better recall of these points weeks later”2.  Truth be told a good story does enhance learning retention. Juana, you certainly must have experienced this yourself.  So why is this, Juana asked. Carlos shared the graphic on How Storytelling Affects the Brain and went on to explain.

Extracted from Adweek.com


The Science

Our brains are wired to connect with compelling stories. Good stories create tension through its narrative. The tension captures our attention and the story plays out like a motion picture to our brain. The brain sees images in a story which is great for learning since our brain processes an image 60 times faster than text.

Additionally, when the brain detects an emotionally charged event such as a story, it releases dopamine into the system. Dopamine aids memory and information processing. You can think of it as a note telling you to remember.

There is also a process labeled speaker-listener neural coupling. Neural coupling happens when the neural patterns of a listener are strikingly similar to those of a speaker.  This turns the speaker’s story into the listener’s story, so to speak. This happens in part when the speaker uses common words and relatable messages.

When I tell the story to the technician trainees, Carlos goes on to explain, I use props such as a gown and demonstrate how to properly put on a gown. Through observation, trainees can participate in the activity even if only one person participates in the donning of the gown.


Juana had a puzzled look on her face. You see I’ve read about a process called mirroring that happens in the brain. Through observation, the brain processes the action as though the individual was actually performing the behavior. When it comes time for the individual to put on the gown in the lab there is a higher probability remembering how to do it properly since the sequence of putting on the gown has already been processed in the brain. It would be wonderful if we had time for all the trainees to go through the proper gowning sequence in class but you and I both know that is not possible.

Putting all this new information together I started to reexamine how I approached training.

What finally sealed the deal for me, Carlos goes on to explain, was when I discovered that when processing facts the brain uses two main areas. When processing a story it uses many more areas. If you use more of your brain aren’t you more likely to remember what was processed?

Carlos thought so.

Juana could clearly understand through her own experiences and the compelling information that Carlos shared there was a clear physiological advantage of using stories to enhance learning. Juana was convinced. And after all, she said to Carlos, you can’t argue with physiology!

 

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References:

  1. Seven Tricks to Making Learning Stick, Sebastian Bailey, April, 2016, Association for Talent Development blog post.
  2. Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, Paul Zak, October 2014, Harvard Business Review.