A Story Puts the Whole Brain to Work

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For centuries, humans told stories to teach lessons, pass on a legacy, and entertain each other. Imagine your hunter-gatherer ancestors sitting around fire. There’s an old woman with a child at her knee. Two young girls sort through berries, pulling bits of stem off each. A father regales the group with a story, the fire flickering off his face as his expressions make his wife and family laugh. The wind blows and the first scent of cooling weather hits the nose. It will be time to move along again soon.


You can totally see it, right?

Our brains are hardwired for stories, probably thanks to these early experiences and the awesomeness of evolution. From a neurological standpoint, a list of information only activates part of our brain – the language centers Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. We decode the meaning of the words and then we’ve got it. Pretty simple.

But when we tell someone a story, their brain lights up: the sensory cortex, motor cortex, and the emotional part of our brains get going. In the above story, your senses were tickled. You may have imagined which kind of berries the girls were cleaning. You may have imagined feeling (or smelling!) the cool air. You may have even empathized with the family, who would have to pack up and move again soon.

Stories Help Us Relate To Each Other

No matter what you’re trying to accomplish, be it related to work or play, a story helps another person relate to you. If you’re trying to sell a product, telling a personal story about how it has impacted your life helps others imagine how it might impact theirs. Likewise, if you sit with a client and tell a story about a fictional character that is going through a circumstance similar to your client’s, it can help them place themselves in your story. Then, they can connect with the story and understand it in a new way.

Although you may have never considered it, we actually think in stories. Recalling events, dredging up memories, or even retelling what happened today at the grocery store to your spouse – everything comes out in stories. Plus, experts say 65% of what we chat about are personal stories and gossip. So why would our messaging in the workplace be any different?


As Brian Boyd, the author of The Origin of Stories says, “Storytelling is patterned cognitive play.” As we participate in this “cognitive play,” our reality is shaped based on what we experience through the story.

A fun example of this in reverse is from an experiment conducted by Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John Bargh of Yale University:


Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.


Here, we see the mind processing physical information and then it influencing the story they read about a person. Pretty cool, huh?

Stories Bring Life To A Concept

How about this? Check out a couple of the characteristics that J. Ruth Gendler writes in The Book of Qualities:

“Patience wears my grandmother’s filigree earrings. She bakes marvelous dark bread. She has beautiful hands. She carries great sacks of peace and purses filled with small treasures…”


“Integrity takes long thoughtful walks. When she comes home, her pockets are full of stones and shells and feathers. She is the daughter of a weaver, and she has inherited her mother’s sense of texture and color…Watching her hands dance, we hear stories that we have no words for.”

Oh, how gorgeous are these?! You can practically SEE Patience and Integrity in these snippets. You can imagine what they look and feel like. And you gain further understanding about their essence through these beautiful descriptions.

What Are The Stories You Tell Yourself?

All stories come from somewhere deep inside our souls. When you want to teach something (sell something, write a story, or whatever) the story you tell is related to one that is already inside you.

So what does that story convey? What are the statements you find that you tell yourself?

Are they:

·         I am successful.

·         I am courageous.

·         I am open and teachable.

·         I am powerful.

·         I am creative.

·         I am beautiful.

·         I am healthy.

·         I am patient.

·         I act with integrity.

·         I act with honesty.

·         I’m motivated by love.

Or are they:

·         I’m worthless.

·         I’m mad.

·         I’m anxious.

·         I’m useless.

·         I hate _______.


Without judgment – how are these statements affecting the stories you tell other people, even when it’s just a group of friends you’re chatting with over dinner?

We all have failures. We have all screwed up, and hurt others, and hurt ourselves, and made mistakes, and fallen and haven’t wanted to get back up, and spent the day in bed, and beaten ourselves up over something pretty little. It’s ok. It’s part of the human experience. It’s what you do after that matters so much more.

Tell yourself a positive story today – one in which you’re the victor. Make it up and make it Princess Bride-like in its whimsy if you have to. Everything goes through your perceptive filters, is stored in cloudy memories, colored by emotions, and changes over time. Your brain won’t know the difference!