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Your Brain on Story

Why Narratives Win Our Hearts and Minds

This article originally appeared in The Pacific Standard on April 23, 2014.

By Michele Weldon

Of course the narratives got the nods. They do for a reason.

The recent Pulitzer Prize awards and finalists in journalism announced last week (minus a non-winner in features) reflect more than a subjective preference by the committee for one reporter’s excellent finished work over another’s. We physically can’t help but notice and reward narrative stories. The best reporting in all of the categories is tied to the personal stories of the individuals impacted.

That is because, as humans, we are helpless story junkies.

The preponderance of narrative approaches lauded by the Pulitzer committee last week in the work of The Boston Globe, The Center for Public Integrity, and The Gazette, among others, demonstrates that our craving and connection to story is so much more than a haphazard preference.

Your brain on story is different than your brain when it is receiving any other form of information, including straight facts and data. There are proven intersections between neuroscience, biology, and story we cannot ignore. The threads of stories that we read, hear, watch, and click on affect us intrinsically. And tempt us as well.

Neuroscientists at Emory University published research in December 2013 showing the changes in neural patterns of volunteers after reading a narrative story based on real events. The researchers assigned subjects to read Robert Harris’ 2003 novel Pompeii, a piece of historical fiction based on real events. It is a genre cousin to narrative non-fiction and narrative journalism that employs the storytelling techniques of fiction to tell true stories.

The results showed heightened connectivity in a specific part of the brain. The left temporal cortex lit up, and not just for the period immediately following the reading assignments. The neural changes persisted for several days. This is why we sometimes say that a story was so powerful we just can’t seem to shake it.

The Emory researchers found the primary sensory motor region of the brain changes as well after reading narrative. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” reported Gregory Berns, director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy and lead author of the study. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

That’s why some stories make you say, “It made me feel as if I was there.” It is why some journalism is compelling, engaging, and makes our hearts pound. And it may also be why there is a growth in the narrative sector of online journalism—with standouts like Byliner, The Atavist,, Longreads (bought recently by Automattic), and Delayed Gratification, which bills itself as “slow journalism.” We like these sites because we like what the stories do to us.

Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate School, found that reading simple, humanistic stories changes what is in our blood streams. Taking blood samples of subjects before and after reading a story about a father and his terminally ill son, Zak found their blood levels contained an increase of cortisol and also oxytocin after reading the story. Called the human bonding or empathy chemical, oxytocin is also released by breastfeeding mothers.

Once they had read the story, subjects were then asked to donate money to a cause for ill children. Eighty percent of the subjects complied. Imagine anything that would cause 80 percent of subjects to do as they were asked.

The University of California-Los Angeles’ social cognitive neuroscience lab director Matthew D. Lieberman studies social interaction and reflects on those connections in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.” He has said, “This is what our brains were wired for: reaching out and interacting with others.” Stories seem to contain that timeless thread of human connection, even if that connection is just through words on a page or screen, or words heard on a podcast.

That notion is supported by the millions of listeners captivated by the stories told by ordinary people by the content foundation of Story Corps, the non-profit narrative receptacle of Dave Issay. Producers have gathered 45,000 stories from 90,000 individuals in cities across America.

Ira Glass, who founded This American Life—a show that draws 1.7 million people to each weekly podcast on more than 500 radio stations—has said that “the power of anecdote is so great that it has a momentum in and of itself.” He contends, “no matter how boring the facts are,” with a well-told story, “you feel inherently as if you are on a train that has a destination.”

This is similar to what Contagious author Jonah Berger refers to as “a Trojan Horse.” You can deliver any message inside, if the Trojan Horse—or vehicle of the message—is a story. Stories, Berger said, are transmitters of contagion. Because of the propensity for stories to spread, journalists must safeguard their veracity.

True, the flip side is that the drive to find compelling stories is so strong and the rewards so great, that it lures some journalists to become fabulists, plagiarizing and fabricating their way into false stories. We know well the historic lessons of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass as the anti-heroes of narrative journalism.

They so acutely understood the need for strong stories that they conjured anecdotes from out of thin air and claimed them as truths. The documentary A Fragile Trust about Blair’s New York Times plagiarism scandal airs on PBS in a few weeks. Almost unbelievably in an age when a lifted sentence can be discovered in a millisecond, journalists continue the malpractice.

Yes, personal narrative stories are at the core of stories that win Pulitzer Prizes for journalists, this year, and for the past several years.

They also are the type of stories awarded prizes in other contests around the country, such as the upcoming 2013 Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest. As a judge in last year’s contest, I read through scores of exceptional narrative from newspapers large and small.

Narrative journalism has its narrativangelists and they flock to conferences such as a recent one in Boston to hear from the patron saints of narrative and to polish their craft. Narrative is close to a religion for some journalists. And now we know why.

The physical power of story and what story does to our brain is the real news. The most prestigious award in the profession is only a reminder. Learning how to harness that rocket fuel for carrying news and information effectively may yield the greatest prize and the wider rewards.

- Michele Weldon is an assistant professor emerita of journalism at Northwestern University.