Uri Hasson, an assistant professor at Princeton University’s Department of Psychology and the Neuroscience Institute, has been sticking people in fMRI machines (with their permission, of course) for a while to eyeball their brains on the power of stories (or, as he calls them, “real-life, complex narratives”).
Inspired to do a little connecting of your own? Here are four ways to send your words out into the world.
Put your written words, voice and photos, or any combo thereof, to work on Cowbird, a storytelling site and community. Free or, for premium features, $5 per month.
Publish multimedia stories using the new everybody-in-the-pool storytelling site from The Atavist, a digital publishing company. Free for the first story; $10 per month for unlimited storytelling.
Tell it like it is — or was — on The Moth website or at one of its storySLAMs (don’t let the name dissuade you: SLAM audiences are famously friendly).
Step into one of StoryCorps’ permanent or mobile storytelling booths with your mom, your best friend or your long-lost sibling and engage in some conversational storytelling.
“Stories have a very strong impact on the brain. They’re a very strong stimuli that can take control over the listener’s brain,” says Hasson.
Here’s what happened on-screen when volunteers were in the fMRI machine: When people listened to a story, their brains responded in ways similar to the storyteller’s. Not an exact duplication, but pretty close. Their brains, basically, coupled.
Or, as McCann puts it: “We recognize that there are two brains at work here; that they are firing off one another. Then those two brains … bring the awareness of otherness to their own lives and to their communities and so on. It’s like one of the good viruses that we can have.”
The link between storyteller and listener isn’t automatic. The areas of the brain that care about high-order thinking light up slowly. It’s not so much a Christmas tree–lighting as a methodical turning on of the area’s circuit breakers. “It’s really beautiful to see in the brain,” says Hasson. “The brains become more and more connected.”
Dave Isay, a former radio guy who gave up telling stories to found StoryCorps, an organization that records people’s stories, is basically a professional listener. Here’s his take on what happens as the connection blossoms: “It’s a very visceral feeling. … You’re one with this person who’s speaking, and their voice holds you.” Considering StoryCorps’ track record — 50,000 recorded stories and growing — he knows of what he listens.
That light also can dim fairly quickly. Screw up the narrative, and the lights go out. During Hasson’s research, he would scramble the sentence order of a story. Each sentence made sense on its own. But as a group? Gobbledygook. The areas of the brain keen on high-order thinking would go take a nap. They needed a narrative to get excited. “They really become aligned to the story,” says Hasson.