3D representation of neurons and the nervous system

How a flash of feeling becomes a memory forever

In Roman times ‘genius’ took the form of a god or spirit which travelled with humans throughout their lives and channelled great acts through their ‘owners’. No human was a genius, but they had the services of a genius. Imagine that today – reading this on a supercomputer the size of your palm in the knowledge that someone’s personal divine entity put it there. Sound ludicrous doesn’t it?

In today’s world we own our own smarts. The things we create, the places we find and the stories we tell to share them are the result of less philosophy and theology (although they influence our day-to-day lives), and more creativity, economics and science. As we discover new things, we want to share them. Often, we do this as a way to monetise them. And our incredible brains – not those of a borrowed genius – hold the keys to do it all.

To this end, our genius for storytelling has always been with us – from cave drawings to the great oral tradition and the first written words to the Gutenberg press. Throughout the ages, stories have played an important part of life. They function as great moral tales or warnings for children, they share historical events through generations and commemorate the loved. Every family has their own and every day we accumulate more. Today there are more stories in the world than people. More to share. More knowledge. More world. How do we stop our own stories from getting lost?

The human brain can process an entire image in as little as 13 milliseconds

There’s no map or instructions for getting an idea inside people’s heads and keeping it there, but we now know enough about psychology and neuroscience to understand what happens in the human brain when it forms attachments to stories. Creating the initial hook that turns the human ‘attentional spotlight’ to your story is one thing – but what does the human brain need to turn that quick flash of attention into a meaningful attachment? And it truly is a quick flash: the human brain can process an entire image in as little as 13 milliseconds. Are you selling something? Reporting news? Raising awareness for a cause? Asking for donations? Whatever you’re using your story to do, then this is the sequence responsible for turning feelings into actions:

The hook

A sense of tension that can hold the attention for more than a couple of seconds can effectively connect the brain to the subject for long enough to kickstart the process of arousal – the brain is readying a response and that could be physical (increased heart rate, sweaty palms, a sense of alertness) or emotional. And off our brains go, taking what we’ve seen and transforming it into something we feel through a complex flurry of neural activity.

The reward

Of all the neurotransmitters (chemicals that pass messages through the nervous system), Dopamine is the fun one and makes us feel good. It’s the way our brain rewards us and is released when we eat, take exercise or engage in a pleasurable activity. And because of this it also helps us hold our attention, engage our memories and process the information in front of us. When we see something exciting, appealing or intriguing, dopamine tells us so – and makes us want more of it.

The bond

Have you ever seen someone yawn and then yawned too? That’ll be mirror neurons. Humans learn by mimicking and these neurons play a big part in our development – including the learning of deeper emotional functions, like empathy. When we build high emotion into our storytelling, it can create an almost contagious effect as these mirror neurons kick in to teach us how to respond to it.

The sense of belonging

A neuropeptide, Oxytocin is best known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ because of its role in childbirth and maternal binding, but it’s far from being a female-only neurochemical. Its release signifies a willingness to trust and readiness to belong, which sounds largely abstract in the context of storytelling, but its presence is a vital step towards your ultimate goal – ‘transportation’: the process of mentally ‘losing yourself’ in the story.

However, it’s important to remember that different people will respond differently depending on their own experiences, so if you’re telling a story for commercial purposes, then it’s absolutely necessary to know who you want to appeal to in order to create a narrative that resonates with them. But it seems that some elements are consistently more successful than others. Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study on memorable images and found that that the most successful photos, in terms of recall, contain people, followed by static indoor scenes and then human-scale objects. Landscapes, although pleasing to the eye, were largely forgettable.

It may be a huge over-simplification, but the stories that stick with us should – at least chemically – be the ones that intrigue and reward in the short-term, but also provide a deep sense of empathy, involvement and belonging as they play out. Whether it’s spoken word, a film, commercial, novel or single image, successful stories share a chemical balance that makes them last.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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