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The Science Of Storytelling: How Narrative Cuts Through Distraction Like Nothing Else

In the first of a three-part series, author Jonathan Gottschall discusses the science of storytelling—not just escapism, stories have real power to hold human attention and shape our thinking.

[Image: Flickr user Jamie McCaffrey]

Note: This article is included in our year-end storytelling advice round-up.

Humans live in a storm of stories. We live in stories all day long, and dream in stories all night long. We communicate through stories and learn from them. We collapse gratefully into stories after a long day at work. Without personal life stories to organize our experience, our own lives would lack coherence and meaning. Homo sapiens (wise man) is a pretty good definition for our species. But Homo fictus (fiction man) would be about as accurate. Man is the storytelling animal.

When it comes to marketing, a company like Coca-Cola gets this. They know that, deep down, they are much more a story factory than a beverage factory. No matter what they’d like us to believe, Coke’s success isn’t due to some magic in their fizzy syrup water (at least not since they took the actual cocaine out). Coke excels because they’ve been clobbering the opposition in the story wars for more than a century. People want to see themselves in the stories Coke tells. Coke understands that their customer is a member of the species Homo fictus, and that they will succeed or fail based largely on the power of their storytelling.

Image: Flickr user Kevin Lawver

As Scott Donaton argued in a recent Co.Create post, other brands should learn this lesson as well as Coke has. "The challenge is clear by now," Donaton writes, "Intrusive, interruptive, self-centered marketing no longer works the way it once did, and its effectiveness will only continue to diminish in the social age. The question is what will replace the legacy model. There’s a one-word answer: stories." Story is the answer for two reasons, both of them backed by compelling science. First, because people are naturally greedy for stories, they have a unique ability to seize and rivet our attention. Second, stories aren’t just fun escapism—they have an almost spooky ability to mold our thinking and behavior. In this post, I’ll describe the science behind the attention-seizing power of stories, leaving their molding power for a follow-up post.

Brands play in an intensely competitive attention economy. The problem isn’t just that attention is a woefully scarce resource relative to demand, it’s that it’s also shattered and scattered around. We can’t blame our smart phones or other modern technologies for our short attention spans. The human mind is a wanderer by nature. The daydream is the mind’s default state. Whenever the mind doesn’t have something really important to do, it gets bored and wanders off into la-la land. Studies show that we spend about half of our waking hours—1/3 of our lives on earth—spinning fantasies. We have about two-thousand of these a day (!), with an average duration of fourteen seconds. In other words, our minds are simply flitting all over the place all the time.

So this is the most fundamental challenge we face in the attention economy: how do we pin down the wandering mind? How do we override the natural tendency for a mind to skip away from whatever we are showing it? By telling stories. In normal life, we spin about one-hundred daydreams per waking hour. But when absorbed in a good story—when we watch a show like Breaking Bad or read a novel like The Hunger Games—we experience approximately zero daydreams per hour. Our hyper minds go still and they pay close attention, often for hours on end. This is really very impressive. What it means is that story acts like a drug that reliably lulls us into an altered state of consciousness.

Image: Flickr user The New Institute

To illustrate why, let’s run a thought experiment. Imagine you are living in Paris in 1896, and you’ve been invited to see something that you’ve heard about but never seen. You walk out of the bright hot streets into a cool, dark theater, and there’s a white screen that opens up in a dazzling explosion of light—like a window thrown open on an alternative universe. You are watching one of the first films screenings in the world. And what you see through the magic window is terrifying. The film is by the Lumiere brothers and it is called The Arrival of a Train. Go ahead, watch it now—but brace yourself! Arguably, this is history’s first horror film.

Don’t bother watching the whole thing. Nothing happens. A train arrives at a station and people mill around. Were you terrified? Well, according to film lore, the first audience for this film was so terrified that they shot out of their seats and stampeded for the exit. They did not want to get run over by that train. Film historians believe this story of chaos in a Parisian theater is probably exaggerated. But whether true or not, the story communicates the same idea. The first movie audiences were totally unsophisticated about the illusion of film. But after more than a century of experience, we moderns are highly sophisticated about film. Movie trains don’t scare us anymore.

But not so fast. Consider this trailer for the horror film Paranormal Activity 3. What’s happening here? These people aren’t idiots. This isn’t their first film. They know the blood isn’t real. They know there are no ghosts or monsters in the theater. They know everything they are seeing is just light flickering on a two-dimensional background. So why are they treating fake things as real? Neuroscience of brains on fiction gives us a clue. If you slide a person into an FMRI machine that watches the brain while the brain watches a story, you’ll find something interesting—the brain doesn’t look like a spectator, it looks more like a participant in the action. When Clint Eastwood is angry on screen, the viewers’ brains look angry too; when the scene is sad, the viewers’ brains also look sad.

"We" know the story is fake, but that doesn’t stop the unconscious parts of the brain from processing it like real. That’s why the audience for a horror film cringes in their chairs, screams for help, and balls up to protect their vital organs. That’s why our hearts race when the hero of a story is cornered—why we weep over the fate of a pretend pet like Old Yeller. Stories powerfully hook and hold human attention because, at a brain level, whatever is happening in a story is happening to us and not just them.

But this all leads to a bigger question. Most of us think of stories as a way to pleasantly while away our leisure time. Is there any evidence that story is actually effective in influencing us—in modifying our thinking and behavior? Yes. Lots. That’s the subject of my next post.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.
Read the second post in the series: Infecting An Audience: Why Great Stories Spread.