This Is Your Brain On Storytelling: Why We Love Narrative ELearning
By Andrew Fayad, CEO of ELM Learning, a creative agency focused on designing custom multimedia and digital learning experiences.
There’s a reason that “and they lived happily ever after” is the gold standard for everything from romantic comedies to children’s fables. Humans love a narrative: the progression of events from start to finish. Once you realize how prevalent storytelling is in how we connect with information, it becomes impossible to ignore its impact. That Superbowl commercial you recounted to your coworker? Storytelling. The journey of your cherished family heirloom? Storytelling. The very best eLearning experiences? Definitely storytelling.
You may have found yourself absorbed in a really good book, but there’s more to storytelling than just a great plotline. Telling stories has been one of humankind’s main ways of sharing information throughout history. Whether around the bonfire, painted on cave walls or passed down from parent to child, stories create emotional connections that actually make it easier to recall information and store memories. Stories can elicit change, entertain, warn or teach because the progression of narrative, characters and setting make it easier for our brains to pair information with emotion. You might laugh, cry, feel anxious or angry, but the outcome is the same: powerful learning experiences.
Why Brains Love Stories
When you hear or see a really compelling story, your brain participates in a phenomenon known as “narrative transportation.” It’s when a story engages so many of your senses that you can almost see, smell, hear and feel what the narrative is describing. If you’ve ever been so engrossed in a movie or book that you barely notice the passage of time, you’ve definitely experienced narrative transportation. That engagement of the senses is exactly why brains love stories so much: They cause real and measurable reactions in your brain’s connections and chemistry.
The two parts of your brain most engaged by stories are the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is the area of your brain responsible for cognition and understanding. As you follow a story, it absorbs the information and commits it to short-term memory. The amygdala, however, is responsible for emotion and long-term memory. As your prefrontal cortex receives information, your amygdala essentially “codes” the information based on the emotion you feel, which contributes to the processing of long-term memories. Both areas of the brain are essential to deep learning and recall and can be some of your greatest allies in the learning process.
We often refer to the chemicals released when you experience a story as the “Angel’s Cocktail.” This is a combination of three of the main brain chemicals that contribute to your emotional connection to a narrative. They include:
• Dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps you assign positive emotions to tasks or actions. A rush of dopamine helps you feel more motivated and focused, like when you hear about a hero conquering a foe (or see a measurable increase in your work productivity).
• Oxytocin. Sometimes referred to as the “love” chemical, oxytocin can help you feel more bonded, trusting and emotionally connected to a story. It moves you to action because you feel compassion or empathy toward the individuals the narrative describes (which might even be yourself).
• Endorphins. Looking to feel relaxed, happy and bursting with creativity? Endorphins are the brain chemicals you want to engage with a story. Endorphins are released when a narrative is funny or feel-good and makes you want to act based on those positive vibes.
Creating Compelling Narratives
Understanding how your brain reacts to stories is one thing, but putting storytelling into practice requires serious storytelling prowess. Think of someone you would describe as a “good storyteller.” What qualities do they add to their narratives? A good story has these four components.
• Recognizable characters. Characters can help give learners a quick dose of oxytocin by developing trust and empathy. We naturally look for characters to serve as analogs of ourselves when experiencing narratives, so it’s important to use familiar descriptions and imagery and avoid characters that could feel exclusionary and cause a disconnect between the learner and the content.
• Plotline/journey. The Hero’s Journey is a literary device utilized in almost any great story. It’s essentially a template for a narrative where the main character (the hero) progresses through a journey with several stages that starts with a call to action and ends with a triumphant return—with some adventures along the way. It’s one of the most effective tools in your storytelling arsenal and one that encompasses all of the brain chemicals in the Angel’s Cocktail.
• Emotional connection. Brains naturally crave connection, and that’s never more apparent than when hearing or experiencing a story. Creating emotional connection might be something as simple as showing a recognizable pain point, empathizing with learners or explaining how training could benefit learners’ lives. Without that meaningful connection, even interesting stories might not make the leap from short-term to long-term recall.
• A satisfying conclusion. A rush of endorphins is usually the best reward at the end of any story, and that reward is the result of a satisfying conclusion. It’s when the hero finally reaches the destination, finds the treasure and learns the meaning of it all. When creating narratives, make sure that the reward is worth the journey that it took to get there. The culmination of effort and engagement in a fitting ending—that’s where the magic happens.
Chances are that your training already tells a story; the characters, journey and connections just need to be defined. By following the natural narrative from start to finish, you can engage learners’ brains on a whole new level. Simply put, storytelling is one of the best ways to turn your learners into heroes and put your training on the path to a happier ending.