What does fascinating storytelling require

Stories and our brains - We experience the real adventures in our heads

Father tells Max the story of the little pig: «The little pig went out into the world. It had packed its bright red rucksack, old bread and fresh apples, a thick blanket, because 'it gets cold at night,' the pig father said, 'and you have no hair, just bristles'. The little pig had had a really bad fight with him. Then the pig father said out of sheer anger: 'If you don't like it with me anymore, you can go.'

The human being is essentially a storyteller.
Author: Oliver LubrichGerman Studies Professor

Max has to cover his nose with laughter. His father would never say anything like that. He goes on to say: “And so the little pig sadly opened up, rang the bell for his friend Peter, who was in third grade and could read, and Peter came with us. Shortly decided. Friends are like that. "

The father talks about it, leafing through the book that he has read aloud many times. Different every time. Sometimes he stops, thinks about it, goes on talking, very quickly, like a rushing waterfall after a big rain.

"Man is a storyteller"

We know the situation. Everyone was once a child and had stories told or read aloud. "Man is essentially a storyteller," says German studies professor Oliver Lubrich. “You can also sum it up: a homo narrans. An animal that tells. "

Oliver Lubrich

Professor of German Studies

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Oliver Lubrich is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Bern. Until 2011 he was junior professor for rhetoric at the Peter Szondi Institute for General and Comparative Literature and in the Cluster of Excellence “Languages ​​of Emotion” at the Free University of Berlin.
Oliver Lubrich is editor or co-editor of several works by Alexander von Humboldt.
Together with evolutionary biologists and ethnologists, Oliver Lubrich examined “The Affects of Researchers” in an interdisciplinary project. Together with neuroscientists, he conducted studies on experimental rhetoric.

Stories accompany us throughout our lives. We grow into a tradition of storytelling, with all its rules and themes. We get to know the world through stories, countries we have never been to.

We travel with Odysseus through the Aegean Sea, with Alexander von Humboldt through South America, with Captain James T. Kirk through the firmament, with Orpheus into the underworld. We experience adventures that we have never had. We never want to experience some terrible ones.

Many know the moment when a "failed" film adaptation of a novel. She may stick to the book meticulously, but not to the ideas that the readers had made. We convert letters into pictures, smells, sounds, feelings. We read about the first love, the last things.

Stories shape our image of the world

Lubrich says: "Stories are patterns, models, role models and we take them over and act them out without us having to be aware of it in detail."

Stories are learning from the model. Lubrich quotes Shakespeare's Juliet, who after the first kiss says to Romeo: "You kiss like from a textbook." The textbook was first. The idea of ​​the kiss was made before it happened. Romeo's kiss apparently stands up to the textbook. Stories prepare us for the world, they shape the patterns as we perceive them. And that has a lot to do with the way the brain works.

Lutz Jäncke, neuroscientist, describes what happens in the brain when narrating: Many functions of the brain are necessary for narration. The narrator has to go to his temporal lobe, a kind of memory.

Lutz Jäncke

Professor of Neuropsychology

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Lutz Jäncke is Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Zurich. His research focuses on cognitive psychology and the plasticity of the brain. To do this, he uses modern imaging methods such as magnetic resonance tomography and electroencephalography.

The frontal cortex decides which memories are brought out. He has to link them to a story; this also happens in the frontal cortex. In addition, the cortex must constantly remember where in the story it is. So it needs a working memory.

All of this happens “on the midline structures, the cingulum, right into the parietal lobe”. Put simply: In imaging processes such as scans, such as MRI, Jäncke observes “high levels of activity in a distributed network”.

In all of this, nerve tracts connect in the brain. Jäncke says that the brain has “around 100 billion nerve cells”. But that is not the point, but rather the ability of each individual cell to "sometimes create more than 10,000 cross-connections".

What fires together, that wires together.

Means: The word “bright red” from our story at the beginning may be associated with memories of a glass of wine on Capri, with music, wind, taste, the other person. For someone else, maybe with the annoyance about the last mean ketchup stain.

Either way: All of this is located in different areas of the brain. These “spark” with each other or, as neuroscientists say: “What fires together, that wires together” - what is active at the same time creates a connection. These connections can be seen in imaging tests.

The more connections, the more areas of the brain that communicate with each other, the easier it is for a brain to remember something.

High cognitive training

When narrating, it not only sparks in the narrator's brain, but also in the listener. Jäncke calls this the “parallel conversion process”. The listener's brain changes everything it hears in the reverse order of the narrator.

The brain of the father telling the story of the pig does a lot until a sentence comes out. And the son's brain does all of this in reverse order.

If the father loses the thread, the son tells him where it was. Here we find the process of change in dialogue: telling, listening, telling back again. Or as Jäncke says: "The dialogue between two people is a high level of cognitive training."

Emotions are not everything, but a lot

Stories are not just about information. "Every story is closely linked to emotions, otherwise it would not be saved," says Jäncke: "Contrary to what the Enlightenment said, we are not people who think cold, but we always have a dash of emotion with us."

Peter Brugger

Professor of Behavioral Neurology

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Peter Brugger was for many years Professor of Behavioral Neurology and Neuropsychiatry at the University of Zurich and Head of the Clinic for Neurology. He has been working at the Valens Clinics since August 2019.

His main research interests are the representation of space, body, number and time in the brain as well as neuropsychology and neuropsychiatry of creativity and delusion.

Peter Brugger, also a neuroscientist, agrees. For him, emotions are essential in three ways: "First, the emotions within a story, second, the emotions that the story evokes in the listener, and third, the emotions that exist between the narrator and the listener."

The story of the little pig, told by the beloved father, is remembered longer than that of a person one is afraid of. “I used to tell stories at dinner,” says Brugger, “very complex things and the wider the children's mouths, the sooner I knew: 'Aha, it's going in this direction, that's what they want to hear.' Then I'll bring that in. "

Relationship and dialogue are essential for Brugger. They also determined how a story would change. If two people told the same story, it would never be the same.

What is a good story?

All three experts agree that there are no patent remedies. "Otherwise there would only be good stories," says Brugger.

But there are a few things that can be said that contribute to this, says Jäncke. Humans have different memory structures, one of which is episode memory. Episode means «who, when, what, where, with whom». Remember the episode memory and assemble the puzzle pieces from an episode weeks later to create a new story.

Sensual storytelling is stimulating and - above all: people have to appear so that we can identify ourselves. That is what the mirror neurons do.

Brugger speaks of "embodied thinking, so we can not only empathize better, it comes in". Lubrich says: “We train our empathy. We practice imaginary without any real consequences. We can try. In evolutionary terms, stories allow us to behave better towards other people. " On the other hand, we learn not to trust everyone equally.

As with the babushkas, there can be something completely different in a friendly appearance that literally «turns out». Caution helped the human species to survive; the narrative patterns, for example, that it is better to wait for someone to show "their true colors" run deep.

Deeply anchored patterns

These narrative forms, which are deeply rooted in people, are so-called narratives. Lubrich says: "A narrative is about the rise and fall of a hero, a nation." Family stories, love stories like "Romeo and Juliet" are narratives: "Stories of a love that overcomes all obstacles."

Narratives touch upon primal fears, longings and questions that connect all people.

Narratives dealt with the great themes of humanity, says Lubrich: “Great tragedies, for example, deal with the existence of man in the face of death. They give us a model of how we can behave in such situations. "

Based on the search for food from the earliest days of mankind, the motif of the search is a recurring one - from Odysseus to Harry Potter. The search for a symbolic object, the meaning of life, the great love.

Collective response

Narratives touch upon primal fears, longings, the first questions and the last things that connect all people. They have a collective response. If they appear more intensely in a story, the probability is high that many will take part.

Narratives answer questions such as: Where do we come from, what dangers have we survived together, what future do we have together, and who is threatening this again?

In this way they create group identity. They help push through a political agenda: "Politics is the art of getting your own story across to others," says Lubrich.

Political slogans as a narrative

Stories have a direct influence on human behavior in everyday life or on voting behavior. It starts with the choice of words. Are you faced with fleeing children or a flood of migrants? Depending on the situation, the reaction will be helpfulness or fear of overwhelming power, which metaphorically comes across as a force of nature.

The narrative of the threat from outside is currently a widespread pattern in political rhetoric, says Lubrich. The slogan of the Brexit advocates “Take back control” is a short story that tells a whole story in a single sentence: to regain lost independence against a superior force in Brussels. Brussels becomes synonymous with foreign rule. The consequence: standing together on the island.

That emotionalises, says Lubrich. Just like "Make America Great Again". This slogan also uses the narrative of the rise and fall of a great nation. US President Donald Trump is constantly trying to convey that the United States was run down before his presidency.

It is difficult for complex things

Lubrich is concerned with how one can counter such populism. It works through radical reduction that fits into a sentence and emotionalises as much as possible, which is easy to achieve with enemy images. On the other hand, complex things are difficult.

Study on the processing of facts and fiction

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Oliver Lubrich was involved in an interdisciplinary research project involving neuroscientists and literary scholars. Test subjects were given texts to read and their brain activity was measured.

The series of experiments had two groups. Both were given an identical text. In one group this was headed with a newspaper headline that clearly stood for factual narration.

In the second group, the identical text was overwritten with a recognizable fictional title.

The computer tomographic images of the brains showed that facts are processed in a different area than fiction.

If someone communicates “alternative facts”, that is, something that is not fact but should be treated as such, this can only succeed if, as Lubrich says, he “temporarily anesthetizes” the readers' brains through a high level of emotionality.

Post-factual information is then not checked, but believed.

One example is the vision of a common, peaceful Europe, says Lubrich: “The positive narrative of Europe after the greatest human catastrophe is freedom, prosperity, democracy, free movement of people and seven decades no war. That's great! But does not appeal to fears. Lower instincts are more emotional than the positive description. "

Lubrich's position on this is clear: "Making plausible without lying is certainly not wrong."