How Your Brain Creates Story
Storytelling seems to have been around for as long as we have. Cavemen used story in the form of drawing and signs on rocks to share tales and teach about hunting; ancient Egyptians used story to educate, entertain and communicate – both visually and audibly; ancient Greek philosophers – such as Plato, told stories that still impact the world today. They understood the power of story, even if they didn’t understand the neurological workings of why story is important.
“Those who tell stories rule the world”
Plato (about 2400 years ago)
The way we tell story and consume story has changed throughout history in line with technology available – the way we process it has not!
In this three-part blog series we will explore the neurological impact of story, starting today with how we create stories in the first place.
Basically, story enables us to make sense of the world around us. It helps us to connect, to understand and to see perspectives other than our own. We can dip into a make-believe fantasy world for while, explore other realities and immerse ourselves in things it may not be practical to experience in ‘real life’.
Interestingly, accuracy is not the most important thing when processing information, coherence is. Your brain is attempting to sort and react to billions of pieces of information from internal neuro pathways and external stimuli every second. It has to prioritise which bits of that info create a threat to your safety in some way and deal with those.
Think about it like this – if your brain were a rail system the objective is to get trains from start to destination as quickly and safely as possible. Information fed to the ‘controller’ forms the basis of decision making – does the train go straight through, does it need to change line, does it need to stop completely? The sooner the controller can process that information the sooner he can move on to the next train. If the controller can see the whole rail circuit, what else is on the line, what the weather is like etc, then he can make a rapid decision. If he can only see part of the picture he cannot. This slows the progress of all trains.
Your brain uses narrative to process information quickly – that narrative is derived from memories, experiences and neurological conditioning. There are a number of different parts of the brain involved in memory formation, the key ones in terms of narrative are:-
The hippocampus, which stores linear and autobiographical information: time, space and people, if you like; the amygdala which attaches emotional significance to memory. This emotional significance is critical in how we process information – strong emotional responses such as shame, guilt, grief, and fear can create a physiological trigger when faced with similar information in the future.
The amygdala is also key to forming new memories – particularly those related to fear or threat to safety. When information is incomplete the brain processes what it has drawing on narrative from your memory to ‘join the dots’ and create the appropriate physiological response.
The neocortex is responsible for higher functions and processing in humans – it stores ‘facts’, language and reasoning. The challenge is that overtime we transfer ‘memories’ from the hippocampus to the neocortex as facts – whether they actually happened the way we recall them or not.
Why does this matter? From a very early age we tell ourselves stories about our actions, our experiences and the actions of others, these stories create a reality within which we exist – this can either expand our perspectives and horizons or constrain them depending on the types of story we tell ourselves.
Ultimately, story – whether internally or externally created, enables us to relate, to connect and to engage emotionally. It drives our behaviour, our feelings and the action we take. Consciously or not we all use story to process information and the quality of your stories has a direct impact on the quality of your life.
Next week we will be looking specifically at how to manage the stories you tell yourself and about yourself, before moving on to how connect with others using story.
In the meantime, think about what stories you regularly tell yourself, do they serve you or hold you back?