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How we learn from stories

When I was little, my mother told me a story of how my father’s boss once drove them to his house for dinner.As we passed houses along the suburban street, I saw one that was made of angel stone – you know that awful fake stone – and I blurted out how I hated angel stone. I said it to fill up the silence. And almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth, didn’t we pull into the driveway of a huge, angel stone house. I could’ve died.”

Even though I was only ten, I pictured my young mother, eager to do her part to impress the boss. Felt her embarrassment in the back of the dark car, saw my father’s profile as he turned, heard the uncomfortable silence as the boss switched off the ignition. In this simple story, without my mother ever having to summarize, I learned to keep my mouth shut about such things until I knew where someone lived.

When someone tells us a story, they transfer their experience directly into our brains. We feel what they felt. Annie Murphy Paul explains in Your Brain on Fiction that the brain “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated”.

Paul is referring to fiction, where a storyteller has given thought to the storyline, crafting metaphors and developing characters. But don’t spontaneous, informal stories – the ones we share all the time – also give us access to the feelings of firsthand experience? Hasn’t someone told you a story where you felt like you were there and learned from the experience?

Stories tell us what someone values, what is important to them. They connect us. In The Power of Stories Joshua Gowin says “when you hear a good story, you develop empathy with the teller because you experience the events for yourself”.

Stories also help us remember. Leo Widrich says that’s because we think in stories. We think in narratives all day long, when we’re out buying groceries, thinking about work or what’s happening at home. We gravitate to the logic of beginning, middle and end.

So when we’re told a good story, we’re engaged and listening – and maybe even connected with the storyteller – and chances are good that we’ll remember. These are good conditions for learning, and probably why we learn so effortlessly sharing stories.

It’s no surprise that advertisers are familiar with the research. They know stories make an impression in our brains. And Jonathan Gotschall says that storytelling is the ultimate weapon because “when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless.”.

At the International Festival of Creativity this year, Spike Jonze led a session on “how businesses can re-imagine the way to communicate with the consumer to create worlds, ‘not ads’.” Witness the direction of Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches or Chrysler’s RAM ad. It’s a pleasure to hear a good story, but we must stop to consider what it is teaching us.

Of course, my mother tried to recover that night. As they got out of the car, she said that this angel stone house was different from the others. But she knew, my father knew, and I knew that the boss’s big house had somehow been reduced to rubble.


E-180 | Labs‘ mission is to transform events, spaces and organisations into peer-learning hubs, through what we call Brain Dates. Learn how here!


Kate Henderson

Kate Henderson writes stories because they tell us so much about ourselves. She joined the E-180 apprenticeship program to refine the skill of thinking about and sharing ideas. Next, Kate would like to learn how to draw. Not works of art, but recognizable images that are worth 100 words.

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