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Behavior Change | Empathy | Storytelling

The Neuroscience of Story Listening

illustration of man sitting on couch telling a story while 4 others in the room are engaged

If you’ve ever been so caught up in an audiobook or podcast that you missed a turn while driving, you know the powerful way stories can capture our attention. From a speaker’s perspective, stories are an effective way to teach, share an experience, create a connection, drive people to action, and even heal from a negative event. But what occurs in the brain as you listen to a story is when the magic happens.

 

Consider the following scenario: I have a friend who I hear from every so often. When she calls after a few months, I’m so excited to hear from her I say, “What’s new? It’s been forever!”

 

“I’m fine. Sort of. I don’t have a job anymore.”

 

I sink with a heavy sigh, my initial exhilaration dropping to match her sadness. I try to help her feel better with a reminder that she wasn’t very happy there anyway. Then I ask what happened.

 

“I got fired for stealing.”

 

“What?!” I leap out of my chair at the absurdity of this impossible mistake. I cuss at the unfairness of someone who surely set her up. I demand details, because there is no way this person I know to be honorable actually stole something. I angrily place blame on strangers without knowing any of the circumstances.

 

The story begins.

 

My friend — we’ll call her Suzy — worked at one of those expensive natural food stores in a small mountain town, the kind of place where they don’t put anything on the shelf unless it’s good for you, organic, or made by artisans and doesn’t harm animals. She worked her way up from stocking the vitamin section to eventually managing the entire store. Over many years, she came to know and love her customers and employees.

 

Knowing this background, the assumption that she intentionally stole from the store seems ludicrous. This longtime friend was a park ranger with me back in the day. She once performed  CPR on a dead man for 40 minutes. She can’t throw out sourdough culture because it’s alive, and she volunteers to sort trash from recyclables at community events.

 

But she also forgets things. A lot. So I naturally assumed she put something in her pocket to free up her hands to help someone and walked out of the store with it at the end of the day.

 

She started to explain what happened. Of no surprise to me, Suzy was trying to help one of her employees who couldn’t afford to feed her family. She allowed the employee to use a gift card that Suzy found in the parking lot three months prior and had placed it in the lost and found. Unbeknownst to Suzy, the gift card had been reported as stolen, so the attempted use raised a red flag. As it turns out, she was terminated because of a zero tolerance corporate policy of removing an item from the lost and found over a certain value.

 

As she told me the story, I slowed the back-and-forth pace of my anger to a meander, pausing when she paused as she provided context around the incident. Throughout the story, I clung to every word, infuriated as the plot thickened, anticipating the moment of injustice. I knew without a doubt that my friend didn’t simply take the money. I just had to stay in the story long enough for that assumption to be validated. I had no idea if I was supposed to be in a meeting at that time or not. I was deeply and emotionally connected with someone 2,000 miles away. I was immersed.

 

Listening, by design.

 

Research shows during a story the listener’s brain starts to synchronize with the speaker’s brain, even going so far as to mirror their voice patterns. The first thing that happened when I was listening is I physiologically felt what she felt. I was saddened with her when she revealed she was unemployed. Then I felt rage when I sensed unfairness. This synchronization can create what researchers have termed the chameleon effect, in which people will unconsciously mimic each other’s behaviors, acting to further bring and keep people together. Mimicry may explain why, as Suzy’s story slowed, my pacing slowed, or why you may pick up a Southern accent if you’re visiting friends in Tennessee, even if you’ve never had that accent before. Stories are thought by some to be the key to facilitate empathic connections, which can help us relate to one another.

 

The mechanisms in our brain that enable synchronizing for better communication are there so we can better share knowledge. In fact, story listening helps promote learning through generation, a neural process that allows us to make sense of new information by pairing it to existing memories. This helps embed mental schemas, long-term memories that make it easy to recall when we need them. This may explain why I can so clearly recall details of Suzy’s story a year after I heard it.

 

Story listening also creates a flow state, which presents conditions for insight. If you’re looking for inspiration or struggling to solve a problem, maybe ask someone to tell you a story about something relevant. Listen closely and focus on the story itself; don’t try to connect it to anything. It’s possible that while you’re listening, an idea might come to you for how to solve a similar problem. Just be sure that if that happens, you don’t interrupt the storyteller with your insight and start sharing your own story. Imagine how Suzy may have felt if I had said, “Aha! That makes me think of a problem I’ve been trying to solve at work. Hang on! Let me jot it down, and then I want to hear the rest.”

 

If you can’t listen, it’s not storytime.

 

Adding the human side to every story is the key to increasing true understanding of someone’s experience, because it increases activity within the default mode network, or the area that is found most synchronized between speaker and listener. This alignment of two brains is especially useful when communicating a difficult idea or situation. Bring in a personal anecdote to increase the shared experience link to improve synchronization and understanding.

 

But it’s important to remember that, like storytelling, story listening can be energizing or hard, because hearing about a human experience is likely to involve some emotion. Remember that emotional sensation can be a good thing in creating a high-quality connection, and it can be part of the process of understanding. Only once we understand an experience, can we know how to write the next chapter. Because in the end, if you tell a story and no one is there to hear it, is it even a story?

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