The Science of Storytelling, with Paula Croxson and Uri Hasson (S3, Ep5)

Brain science is everywhere, even in the stories we tell. Hear from neuroscientists and storytelling experts Paula Croxson and Uri Hasson about how the brain processes stories, how a listener’s mind resonates with the storyteller’s, and why some stories have the power to transport you to a different place. Plus… If facts can’t change someone’s mind, can stories?

Phil Stieg: Hello!  In today’s episode we’ll meet two guests who are going to help us explore the science of storytelling  — and storytelling about science.  

First, is Dr. Paula Croxson.  Dr. Croxson is the Director of Public Programs at The Zuckerman Mind, Brain and Behavior Institute of Columbia University. A neuroscientist with a PhD from Oxford University she has made communicating science through the art of storytelling a major focus of her career.  In addition to her work at Columbia, she is a producer and primary contributor to Story Collider – stories about science.

Dr. Croxson, welcome and thank you for being with us today.

Paula Croxson: Thank you so much. 

Phil Stieg: So, please tell me about Story Collider, and how storytelling is important in science.

Paula Croxson: Story Collider is a live stage show and podcast, and the mission of Story Collider is really to tell true personal stories about science. We believe that science is everywhere, that science is a human process, and that it’s part of everyday life. So the stories that we feature range from people who are career scientists, but they also include the stories of regular human beings. So we really want to show the whole range of what science is and to show that science is human and that scientists are human.

Phil Stieg: You started your career in neuroscience research.  How has storytelling affected the trajectory of your career? 

Paula Croxson: I kind of went from someone who thought that I should be just reporting the facts of science to realizing there’s no such thing as reporting the facts of science because it’s so human to put a story to everything. So then why not make that accessible to people who aren’t already in the system of science? And that just had such a profound effect on me that it made me realize that I wanted to do something different with my career. Instead of being the one making the discoveries, I wanted to be the person who helped people have access to those discoveries and the scientists making them, and to find ways of communicating science to people who maybe don’t think of themselves as part of science or included by science in any way.

Phil Stieg: Why do you believe that storytelling is so powerful?

Paula Croxson: That’s a great question.  I think there’s a couple of reasons for this. And in order to answer this question, I’m going to compare storytelling as a form of communication with something that scientists love, which is fact-based communication. So scientists love to give facts and write things in a very straightforward way. But storytelling is characterized by having believable characters experiencing meaningful events that have consequences that the storyteller themselves must deal with. And that actually, to me, is the process of science, because science is a process. It isn’t a list of facts. We’re constantly asking questions, taking steps to answer them, running into pitfalls, and then doing it all over again. 

So firstly, I think for me, storytelling is the essence of science, and it shows the process of science much more effectively. Secondly, it turns out that people’s minds are not easily changed by facts. So there’s an old theory of science communication known as the deficit model, which hypothesizes that people just need more information. They just need to be taught more things, and then they’ll understand the science, and then they’ll agree with it. And I think that we’ve all seen that that doesn’t always happen.  There are plenty of facts available, there is plenty of education available. And yet people cling to their own belief systems and their own identities. And I think a great example of that is political beliefs. So when people have a political belief, they continue to align with the political belief that they have, regardless of the scientific facts, and they make the facts fit whatever it is that they want to believe. And I say want to believe, but belief is not necessarily a choice. It’s part of your identity.

Phil Stieg:  Are you saying that some people will never believe the facts?

Paula Croxson: (laughs) I’m trying to say that science facts alone cannot change one’s mind because politics is so powerful. It’s a way of life. Religious beliefs are another example of that. Where I grew up and my background, all of these things are part of my identity. And I can’t just shake them off because somebody told me something interesting or even highly believable. 

Storytelling, though, is very persuasive because of the way that it draws us in and transports us into the narrative experience of the speaker. So even without drawing on any studies here, it always feels easier to listen to a story than a list of facts because it’s very, very hard to argue with somebody else’s personal experience. It’s much easier for me to believe your story if you tell it from the first-person perspective than if you tell me what to think. If you tell me what to think, I’m going to sit back and say, oh, no, I don’t think that – what are you talking about? But if you tell me what you think and you tell me how you came about those beliefs, I’m automatically going to buy into that to some degree.

Phil Stieg: In your day job as director of public programs at the Zuckerman Institute, are you trying to influence them the way scientific material is being transmitted to the public or to other scientists?

Paula Croxson: So I think it’s very important to make science feel accessible to people who’ve historically been excluded from scientific spaces or marginalized by science or even mistreated by science and scientists. I work around a lot of people who are intimidated by science and scientists and the buildings of science.

Phil Stieg: Well, and the way it’s taught. My daughter wanted to be a doctor until she took organic chemistry, and it’s a dry subject, and there’s got to be a better way to teach it. You’ve told us that they are important stories, but why are they so important in terms of communication?

Paula Croxson: One of the reasons that stories are so powerful and persuasive is because of a phenomenon known in the field is narrative transportation. Narrative transportation is that feeling that you get when you’re watching a great movie or reading a great book and you’re so absorbed that somebody could come up and say your name and you wouldn’t respond, which is really incredible because your name is a very high level of activation in your brain at any given time. So it’s also that same feeling where you’re reading a true story written by somebody and you wonder for a moment whether they’re going to survive, even though, you know, they must have done because they wrote the book afterwards. What many studies have shown to happen when you experience the phenomenon of narrative transportation is that you process the information more deeply, so you actually take in and internalize the experience of the storyteller or the protagonist in the story, whoever you’re following. So you process more deeply, but also you feel less critical of the content. And so that is what lends storytelling this feeling of verisimilitude, of “truthiness”, of believability and ultimately persuasion. Because we’re not so critically analyzing the information, we’re more willing to stick with it and to get to the end of the story because we want to know what happened next.

Storytelling has this universal property. It’s so powerful that if you measure people’s eye blinks when they’re engaged in watching a live storytelling performance, their eye blinks tend to sync up with each other.  It’s such a collective and powerful experience, even something unconscious, as whether or not you keep your eyes open, become synced up with the people around you 

(Interstitial theme music)

Narrator: Let’s take a moment to listen to an excerpt from one of the Story Collider events recorded in 2017 before a live audience in Toronto.  David Evans, a paleontologist from the Royal Ontario Museum, recounts how a frustrating fossil dig in South Africa led to an unusual discovery…

David Evans: We’re pretty excited to get there so, on day one, we fanned out over this little rocky outcrop.  We got down on our hands and knees like paleontologists do.  We had our noses about a foot from the rocks and we started searching for fossils, notably dinosaur eggs and nests.  We did it for three, four, five hours.  Lunch came.  We hadn’t found anything. 

We did it for another five hours.  We covered the same spots that we covered in the morning.  We covered them again and we covered them again and, by the end of the day, there was no sign of a dinosaur. 

So day two, we did it again.  We got right down on our bellies with literally the rocks within inches of our eyeballs.  Again, another eight hours, another day, no dinosaur eggs. 

So by day three, we were really starting to feel the pressure.  We spent another eight hours going over and over the rocks that we had been over and over the previous couple of days.  And, at the end of day three with the sun waning in the afternoon, we were feeling pretty defeated and we were feeling pretty exhausted and pretty dejected.  

Narrator:  Wondering what to do next,  David and his colleague Hillary began idly skipping rocks down the hill  and across the road.  

David Evans: We threw rocks for what seemed like ever.  We just kept throwing rocks across the road, and I ran out of good chucking rocks.  And so I reached back into the cliff and I just pulled a rock from the cliff.  Before I hocked it, I looked at it.  And it’s a good thing.  I was holding in my hand a perfectly preserved dinosaur egg.

Without saying a word, I just turned to Hillary.  She looked at what was in my hand and her jaw just dropped.  And I just retraced the arc of my arm from where I had picked up that rock in the cliff face and we turned, and beside it was the outline of another egg, and another egg, and another egg.  Six eggs in a perfect line.  We had found a dinosaur nest. 

It turned out to be amazing.  It was a beautiful fossil.  But more importantly, it reprogrammed our search image.  We were looking for whole eggs or eggshell fragments as they would weather out of soft sediment, but what we should have been looking for is the faint outlines of eggshells, eggshells that are thinner than your fingernail . 

Once we realized that, our luck changed and we were off to the races.  We found another thirteen nests in that tiny little road cut and our expedition was a huge success. 

But I learned something in that expedition that stuck with me my whole career.  Of course, perseverance and luck play a big role in advancing knowledge but, in this case, those eggs were there right in front of my face the entire time and right in front of so many faces for years but we just didn’t know what we were looking for.  So sometimes I think the biggest breakthroughs in science are like that.  You just have to look at things a little differently.  Thanks.

(Theme music out)

Phil Stieg: For a perspective on the neuroscience behind the power of storytelling, we reached out to  Professor Uri Hasson from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Institute of Princeton University. Dr. Hasson uses the concept of storytelling to understand how our brains make meaning out of our experiences and shape how we think. Professor Hasson, thank you so much for being with us today.

Uri Hasson: Happy to be here.

Phil Stieg: So in your lab, you study how the brains of narrators and listeners are activated in a simple way. Can you tell us how that works?

Uri Hasson: Yes. So what we are looking at basically is what’s happening in our brains now as we speak.  So we can scan my brain now as I’m speaking and your brain now as you’re listening and try to understand how information is going from one brain to another. 

So basically we’re looking into the brain responses of the speaker while he’s telling the story in the scanner, and then we take the recording of the story and we play it to listeners and we look at their brain responses while they are listening. And now we can take the brain responses in each brain area of the listeners and correlate it with the brain responses of the speaker. And what we see is that the same brain patterns that you see in the speaker brain start to emerge in the listeners brain. And the more similar the brain responses, the stronger the correlation and the stronger the understanding. During the communication, our brains become coupled. 

So, in other simple terms;  if we are completely confused now, don’t understand what I’m saying – have to struggle with my heavy accent, then  we are not coupled. If you start to get me, your brain starts to be similar to mine. And if you really get me, we become more and more similar in our brain responses.

Phil Stieg: The thing I found most fascinating, reading through some of your literature is this concept of synchronization. The fact that you, the speaker, and me, the listener, have activated similar parts of our brains. Number one, what does it really mean? And number two, when you found this, was that surprising  to you?

Uri Hasson: So on the one end, it’s very simple and trivial. So let me do this experiment with the listeners. If I’m now going to clap.  (claps five times) With each clap, your brain response is going up in the auditory system and with silence going down. So now our brains couple to the sound wave, and that’s exactly what you expect from a system that is locked to the outside. So this is the basic idea of coupling.  

But we don’t want to be coupled to the clapping. We want to be coupled to the meaning of words and to the ideas and that requires higher brain areas to be coupled.  And this is where the magic is happening. And this is surprising. You know, I’m not a native English speaker and we have different backgrounds and different histories. So you don’t expect us to be coupled in these areas in the same way, and you don’t expect us to represent a concept that is very abstract in the same way. And this is what we see. So this is where it becomes actually surprising.

Phil Stieg: You talk about in your papers how languages affect brain patterns. If you listen in Russian, it’s different than listening in English. If you tell a story backwards, it affects the way you hear it. If you change one sentence, it changes the way you hear it. So explain that, please.

Uri Hasson: So you’re right. We see that we are similar, we don’t see that we are identical. So that leaves us room for the differences to make an impact. And this is exactly what we see in communication. You can change one word in a story and you can get a different story. This is why communication is difficult. 

Let’s start with describing one experiment . So in this experiment, we took a story by JD Salinger. The background is basically a husband lost track of his wife at a party. He goes back to his apartment, very anxious, in the middle of the night, where is my wife? I don’t understand what’s going on. Calling his best friend and saying, did you see my wife? Next to the best friend, there is a naked woman. And Salinger is very smart not to reveal her identity.

So we as a good scientist decided, let’s destroy the story.  For half of the people who say the woman, this is the wife. She has an affair with the best friend. So the husband asks, Can I come over? I’m very lonely. I want to be with you. And the friend says, no, please don’t come. I’m tired. You understand why he says no.  For the other group who say the wife is loyal. This husband is very jealous and unstable. And this is the girlfriend of the best friend. So when the best friend says no, you also understand why. But it’s a different explanation.

And now we’re looking at the brain responses of the listeners. They all listen to the exact same story. They only come with different backgrounds — the wife has an affair or the husband is crazy. We can look on the brain responses and ask how similar –  how coupled they are to each other. And what we see. We see that people that believe the wife and affair are more coupled to each other and people that believe that the husband is crazy, also more coupled to themselves. It’s not that they are completely different from the other group, but there is more similarity. And this similarity is enough for us, we were like 92% confident in what you are thinking. That’s like a strong signal for scientists. So that tells you immediately that if you come with different backgrounds and different beliefs, you have different brain patterns and you understand the story in a different way.

Phil Stieg: I couldn’t help but think about Fox versus CNN. And you just made the comment that we’re failing to communicate clearly. And I was wondering, are they really communicating well? And they are reaching their audience of like-minded people. And that has created this bifurcation and also our inability to communicate with people that are on the opposite aisle.

Uri Hasson: I was thinking about it. If we only give the subject one sentence before the story starts, the wife has an affair, right? The one sentence. And it was enough to make them so different from the other group that got a different sentence.  Right? Now when you come to listen to a speech by Obama for example, and someone told you over and over not like one sentence like hours and hours of “He is a Muslim terrorist that came to influence our beloved country.”  Of course you will listen to it in a very different way than someone that has a different set of beliefs and reading other media like the New York Times.   All sides come with different filters. And because each one is listening to his own echo chamber; each one is coming with a different filter. And this is why the communication is breaking across the aisles because we all started to be listening to a different set of machinery that gives us different inputs.

Phil Stieg: Unfortunately, that’s why I’ve stopped listening to the news and just tried to read bullets of what’s happening and then hopefully formulate my own opinion.

Uri Hasson: Exactly. And the thing that I think we are losing; we lose the common ground.  Communication –   the basis is common ground. Right. And if you’re listening to a completely different channel and I’m listening to a completely different channel, there is no common ground. So if we go to our echo chamber and we’ll never speak, our society is going to crumble.

Phil Stieg: I understand that hearing stories through different filters can drive us apart, but don’t you also believe that storytelling can bring us together as a society? 

Uri Hasson: Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to communicate ideas. It’s way better than to give facts as scientists like. And we can use this tool really to enhance understanding and enhance what is important about science and also about public health and about global warming. There are so many things to communicate to people that are complicated and going to affect our life. And if we will make everyone align and find common ground again, talk about it. It’s really important for humanity.

(Music interlude)

Phil Stieg: I would like to thank my guests Dr. Paula Croxson and Dr. Uri Hasson for sharing their insights into the neuroscience of storytelling.  They’ve shown us how our brains process stories, how different stories can work to “couple” us or drive us apart, and what that all means for us as a society.

It is my hope that the stories we share through this podcast will help break down the barriers that divide us as we focus on how the brain makes us all human. 

If you’re a fan of This Is Your Brain, please tell your friends about it so they can enjoy these stories as well.