Disagreement is part of all scientific research, but on the subject of persuasion, there’s a near-unanimous consensus among neuroscientists: 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. Humans not only crave stories, we need to hear them.
“Storytelling is amazing,” says Princeton University neuroscientist and researcher Uri Hasson. Hassan is experimenting with images that would allow us to look at the brain patterns of people who are engaged in conversation. He has concluded that an emotional story is the only kind of dialogue that triggers this kind of mind-meld between two brains.
He should know. Hasson runs a research team at Princeton University that uses fMRI machines to scan the brains of people engaged in storytelling—both telling and listening to stories.
Let’s imagine for a moment that I’m about to tell you a true story. It’s about my father, Francesco Gallo, who was a prisoner of war in World War II. He spent five years in a stark camp in Ethiopia, surviving on rice and water. The lessons he imparted stick with me to this day—approach life with grit, perseverance, and hope.
Now, let’s imagine for a moment that tiny electrodes are placed on our scalps. You and I are both hooked up to Hasson’s brain scans, along with four other people. All of us—you, me, and the four people—are connected to the machine.
Hasson takes your scan before I begin telling my story. The scan shows movement in your brain waves because the brain is always working, even when you’re sitting in the dark in silence. The key is that your brain waves are doing something very different from the waves of the others who are also waiting. No two brains in the room are in sync.
I begin talking, and as my story unfolds, Hasson sees movement in the scans—your brain waves and the waves of the others are going up and down in the brain region that processes sound, the auditory cortex. Suddenly, something amazing begins to happen. “The subjects lock to the story,” according to Hasson. In other words, your brain waves begin to move up and down together and blood flows to the same regions of your brain and the brains of the other participants. You are in sync with the other listeners and you are all in sync with me, the person telling the story. Hasson calls it “neural entrainment,” or brain alignment between speaker and listener.
To prove that it’s the story itself causing the alignment, Hasson records my story in Russian and plays it back to non- Russian-speaking listeners. He sees movement in the auditory cortex because the brains of the listeners are processing sounds, but the scans do not show alignment. Only a story, a comprehensible narrative, can trigger alignment among all the listeners. In addition, “only when we use the full, engaging, coherent story do the responses spread deeper into the brain into higher- order areas, which include the frontal cortex and the parietal cortex, and make all of them respond very similarly.”
Recently, biomedical engineers at Drexel University used a more advanced tool called fNIRS (functional near- infrared spectroscopy) to study the brains of two people having natural conversations with one another in less formal settings than a lab. The technique uses light to measure neural activity and to give researchers a view of blood flow to different parts of the brain. The study was based on Hasson’s work but intended to give a more accurate measure of what’s happening when two people tell each other stories. The researchers’ conclusion confirmed Hasson’s experiments—a listener’s brain mirrors a speaker’s brain when the speaker is telling a story about a real-life experience.
In study after study, neuroscientists using the latest technology are confirming what we’ve known intuitively for centuries. The human brain is wired for story. Since humans began to communicate with one another, we’ve told stories. Anthropologists believe that when our ancestors gained control of fire, it was a major milestone in human development. Fire cooked food, which gave us protein to build larger brains. Campfires also extended the day. Instead of hunting and gathering as they did during daylight hours, our ancestors sat around the light exchanging stories. Stories informed others in the camp of potential threats, taught new ways of building tools, and sparked imagination.
Now we know that Pathos—emotional appeal—is an essential component of persuasion. We also know that stories are the best tool we have for making such an appeal. But are all the stories the same, or do some carry more weight than others?
According to Hasson’s research, stories that highlight the common ground between two people trigger more alignment in brain activity between speaker and listener. If I can find common ground with you, my listener, I’ll have more success at persuading you to see the world from my point of view.
Emotion is the brain’s ancient mechanism to help us remember key events and forget some of the rest, because, after all, not everything is equally important. If you remembered everything with equal intensity, you’d have a hard time functioning. Some memories are made to be stored. Others, not so much.
Storytelling lies deep within our DNA. It’s a tool that triggers the rush of brain chemicals that was critical for social bonding in primitive society and continue to bond us today. By including tension, conflict, and hurdles within a story, you’ll add a little stress that keeps your listeners glued. Stories are irresistible because we’re wired to think in story, process our world in story, and share ideas in story. Master the ancient art of storytelling and you will stand out in the modern world.
Carmine Gallo is the author of the new book, Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great.