Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Why our brain loves stories

Two weeks ago we learned that our brains are better at encoding stories as opposed to simple facts. This week we will explore why this is the case and how we can make use of this fact.

Recent studies from neuroscience have shown that when we read words of course the brain areas that are related to language are activated. However, depending what the word or expression is there are also other areas that are activated: areas associated with motion when the word or expression refers to something that is moving, olfactory or sensory areas when the word or expression refers to odour or texture, and so on. Thus, in the brain, reading something elicits patterns in the brain that are very similar to really experiencing what we are reading about. Thus, it seems that when we read fiction the activation in our brain is similar to what it would be like if we really experienced what we are reading about.

In an earlier post we reported about a study conducted by researchers Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley, and Jordan B. Peterson. They found fiction readers to outperform nonfiction readers on a test of empathy, or the capability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling.

There is an article outlining what happens in our brain when we read in the New York Times.

What this means is when we read a story rather than only a few bullet points, multiple areas in our brain as opposed to “only” the areas associated with language are activated. This leads to better encoding and, consequently, to better retrieval. So in order to remember something more easily, we should try and use a story. On the Buffer Blog there is an outline of what happens in our brain when we listen to stories and what the evolutionary basis of this is.

Thus, in order to memorise something we should read or listen to a story – or even better, make up one ourselves. Creating such a story also means that we elaborate on the information we are processing – which is a more profound and thus more effective way of information processing. We reported on this in an earlier post. Similarly, when we want others to remember what we told them, for example when we present ideas to them, we can use stories. These stories don’t necessarily have to be great fiction. They could simply be how we developed a certain idea and what happened on the way. Our brains simply love stories!

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