“Stories are what our lives are made up of. Stories are how we remember people. Stories make us feel a little less alone in the world.” — Andrea Gibbs
Stepping off the plane, I’m welcomed by a whoosh of thick, living heat. Beads of sweat accumulate on my face, my neck. A short, friendly man greets me in rapid-fire Creole. I blink and realize it’s English.
My stomach churns as I follow the man — eyes flicking left and right and left again as I absorb the melee of the foreign airport. I’m excited too. My blood vibrates with an even mix of fear and adventure.
I’m here. Finally.
Except I never was there. That story isn’t mine — it’s my father’s.
But when he tells it — and he tells it often — I’m transported. I’m the one walking through the Seychelles airport: day one of what ultimately becomes an eight-month trip, teaching swimming lessons to the children of the island.
His experience becomes my own.
Storytelling is just that powerful.
The brief history of stories
The world’s first story has been lost in the shroud of time. We’ll never know who scratched the first picture on the cave wall or why they were compelled to do so.
But we do know that stories have been as fundamental to defining the human race as our ability to use tools and walk on two legs. Stories make humans human.
As the centuries passed, technology continued to support and foster new ways to tell stories, new ways to connect us to one another. First, there were pictures, then language, the written word, the printing press, the advent of radio and movies, of television and the one piece of technology that allowed everyone’s story to be told: the internet.
In 2017, we have the power to get swept up in the magic of stories more than in any other millennia.
The power of stories
Back in the caveman days stories focused on survival. What to hunt. Where to hunt. How to live in a complex, predatory landscape.
But stories also connect. When you fall into the world of someone else’s story, your brain synchronizes with theirs. If the storyteller has brain activity in her insula (a region of the brain that registers emotion) you’ll have brain activity in your insula. If her frontal cortex lights up, so will yours.
A team of scientists at Princeton, led by Uri Hasson, set out to study this phenomenon, seeking to scientifically answer the question: why does storytelling create empathy? They had a woman tell a story in both Russian and English, which were then played to English-speaking listeners. When the listeners heard the story in their own language they experienced that synchronicity.
Her story seemed to unfold before them. All because their brains experienced the same pattern as hers.
That experience did not occur when listeners didn’t understand what she was saying.
Transportation is why you experience heart palpitations, sweaty palms and spikes of adrenaline when the on-screen hero leaps into the burning building to save the innocents, why you shout at the naive soon-to-be victim to not go in that basement.
As neuroeconomist Paul Zak explains, you know you’re watching, or reading, or hearing fiction, but your brain stimulates the emotions of the character nonetheless. You are essentially experiencing the same emotional journey as Wonder Woman or Sherlock Holmes or Khaleesi.
Transportation reveals why we are moved by stories. Why stories bring us to tears, inspire us to action and change our attitudes, our fundamental beliefs.
By telling a story, you’re planting ideas, memories, feelings into another human being.
And that’s some pretty powerful stuff.