Tell a Story, Change a Brain

I’ve always liked to tell stories. When I taught primary grades and we had 5 minutes left before lunch, I’d sometimes make up tales of flying strawberries and magic islands. Those were charmed moments, free of misbehavior as students joined me in imaginary adventures.

But other subjects became stories, too. Events in history became real when recounted as a story rather than a series of facts. Even the water cycle is much more interesting as the story of a droplet. Now, it seems, there is even more to storytelling than I knew. Storytelling isn’t just fun, it is hardwired into our brains.

Neuroscientists are learning that our brain constructs narratives (stories) as a way to make sense of the world. Here’s a chance to listen to a scientist whose work you probably know, but whose name you may not. This is Michael Gazzaniga, one of the early split-brain researchers, whose work led us to insights about the functions of the right and left brain. In this brief talk, he explains the role of the brain’s “interpreter” in creating stories that make sense of the world.

If our brain uses stories to make sense of the work, it seems logical, then, that framing information as a story makes it easier to understand and remember. Here’s one more video, from Paul Zak, on the chemical changes that happen in the brain when the brain hears a story. Click, and your brain chemicals will release!

There’s even one study suggesting the brains of storytellers and listeners actually “sync up.”

What does all this mean for teaching? At minimum, it says stories are powerful. When we use story to share information, students are more likely to understand and remember it. If students transform information into a story that makes sense to them, think what it will do for their brains. Whether narrating the “life” cycle of metamorphic rocks, writing an electron romance, or creating a graph that tells a story, story-building activities allow students to enhance their creativity and their learning. How have you used storytelling to teach?

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