Saturday 15 April 2017

For The Love Of Storytelling

We all know how everyone loves a good story. Whether to command a crowd, motivate people, or to entertain them, narrative seem to posses a power capable of changing minds and influencing beliefs, behaviours, and attitudes. It is also known that women prefer men who are good storytellers to those who can’t spin a tale. It is not uncommon to hear from them that storytellers are seductive. In fact, recent findings have shown that, apart from being one of our most fundamental communication methods, storytelling can even make us fall in love.

But have you ever wondered why we are attracted to stories and their raconteurs? Well, science is now able to explain. Let me share with you what psychology and neurobiology can tell us about the topic.

In a recent joint paper out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University at Buffalo, a team of researchers concluded that good storytelling can fuel romance and lead to love. Published in the journal Personal Relationships, the three studies were conducted in an effort to examine gender differences regarding how storytelling may influence someone’s attractiveness as a long-term and short-term romantic partner. The results have shown that being able to tell a good tale is an advantageous evolutionary ability, which has a direct impact on attracting long-term romantic prospects.

Interestingly, this was not necessarily the case for females; a man’s storytelling ability factored greatly in their assessment of whether he would be a more appealing long-term match. For men, on the other hand, while storytelling ability in women seemed to show signs of greater intelligence, it wasn’t translated as regarding the women to be a more attractive match.

It was equally revealed that good male storytellers were not favoured by female as short-term prospect partners, only for long-term. Hm, makes one think.

The reason why this occurs was unveiled after further analyses of the findings. According to evolutionary theorists, women perceived men who were good storytellers as “higher status”; as more likely to be a leader and/or to be admired. It seems that in a woman’s mind there exists this conception that a man who can command the crowd with his well-structured language(s) ability — hence is able to tell compelling stories — is more likely to garner higher status within the group.

Whether or not good storytellers are actually able to attain higher social status or leadership positions hasn’t yet been scientifically tested. But based on said studies, the perception is well established in the collective female psyche. 
One can actually reckon how it could make sense to them, even if subconsciously.

The volunteer students were exposed to both good storytelling and not-so-good one. The condition or characteristics of the good stories were mainly referred to as “having an interesting variety of word choice”; which translates into “the writer possess an extensive vocabulary”. The volunteers were also told that the writer whose writing they are reading “often tells really good stories at parties”; which means that have the guts and the know-how to express themselves publicly in a well-structured manner.

In other words, good storytelling entails having a good command of the language — wide vocabulary, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure — plus being outspoken and fun. The latter characteristic may be only relevant to this particular example used in the study, because there is a significant number of introvert storytellers who would rather deal with a computer or a notebook rather than having to make eye contact with people while speaking to them face to face. 

Then again, being book-smart or memorising the thesaurus don’t make us good communicators. One must be able to incorporate the language into their writing, or speeches, while making sense. As I had previously shared in On Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing, I hold that everyone has something to say, but not everyone can deliver their words ― be it written or spoken ― in a coherent, or captivating, or catchy story-like or message-like form.

In a Wall Street Journal article titled, Why Good Storytellers Are Happier in Life and in Love, the writer begins by reminding us why good storytelling is regarded sexy. “In William Shakespeare’s time, the word “conversation” meant two things — verbal discourse, and sex.” Indeed, engaging, intellectual conversations could be quite erotic for some of us.

Personally, while I had been a lover of storytelling and a good communicator for as long as I can remember, I came to learn the basics of writing when I majored in Journalism and Mass Communication in university. When I later began working in corporate I learned more tips about effective public speaking through this training program/course called Train The Trainers. While working for three different companies 

I first took the course myself and then started teaching it to the newly-hired as well as to future trainers.

One of the useful tips I recall is to change your tone every once in a while. Because we can only attract the attention span of an individual, or the masses, for a limited amount of minutes. How many times did we get bored and started nodding while listening to someone reading their PowerPoint presentation with a monotonous tone of voice? 

Speaking of which, I recall how I loved history in school much more than, say, biology; simply because I studied it as a story and that’s how I was able to retain and retrieve all the information without actual memorisation.

Another tip I came to learn for TTT is to add real-life examples so that people can relate. Making eye-contact with the class/audience and divide it fairly between the different listeners is another. Also, adding humour whenever you can to make it interesting, for them and for yourself, especially if the setting and/or topic is business-related which usually lacks fun.

When after all this I transitioned from the mundane corporate realm to taking writing as a vocation it felt utterly right, for lack of a truer word to explain my sensational passion. Now more than ever, I consider each and every story I tell to be similar to performing on stage. Speaking requires effort and energy — body language, gestures, different techniques — in order to keep the audience captivated for a while and be able to deliver your message, whether at the end of the ‘performance’ or through it or both. But more or less, all stories follow the same rule: An introduction as a frame, the narrative body, then the conclusion or the punchline — though depending on the overall length I may have a few of those in a single story.

The featured photo of my cousins and I may be one explicit example of how animated I could get once in my element.

Amusingly, after about five years into writing I came to be certain for myself how women love creative storytellers and artists. Despite the fact that they may not know me personally, a healthy number of them seem to actually be attracted to me through my writings. And I would be shamelessly lying if I said I didn’t like it.   

When neuroscience was involved in exploring the effects of storytelling on the brain it was found that narratives caused the brain to produce the neurochemical Oxytocin. Dubbed the Love Hormone or Cuddle Hormone, this peptide is released when we snuggle, bond, play with our pets, or even watch a video of a cute baby panda; it is also released when we experience trust or shown kindness, which in turn motivate us to engage in cooperative behaviour.

In one study, volunteers were exposed to a narrative shot on video. By measuring their brain activity and taking blood raws before and after they watched character-driven stories, the researchers found that Oxytocin is always produced by the brain; the level of which predicted how much people were willing to help others.

In further studies it was found that for people — viewers or listeners — to be motivated to help others, the story they are being exposed to needs to first grab their attention, naturally. The key lies in creating tension in the narrative. Once the viewers/listeners are attentive they will come to share the emotions of the characters in it.

Not only that, but it’s predicted that they will keep mimicking the character(s) for a while after they are done with the story, sometimes lasting for days afterwards. 

Think of yourself after watching a film or reading a novel you had really enjoyed and how you seem to embody the main heroic character — their feelings and behaviours — for a while after. Consider Superman, Rocky, Karate Kid, or Star Wars.

It is worth stating that the influence is not always a positive one. On more sinister note, I remember when Natural Born Killers came out in 1994 and I went to see it at the theaters with my then girlfriend and a friend. Upon the end of the movie, 17-year-old me left the theater feeling like a true badass. Despite loving the movie, fortunately none of us acted upon that sensation and began psychopathically shooting bystanders in the streets of Cairo, as it happened elsewhere with people who pretended to be Mickey and Mallory before all hell broke loose.

In fact, a quick scroll through Google results in an abundance of websites titled “List of alleged Natural Born Killers copycat crimes”. One crime involved the Shooting of William Savage and Patsy Byers; rendered quadriplegic, the latter took legal actions against Oliver Stone and the Time Warner company in March 1996, which were eventually dropped. 

Another copycat crime of NBK is Heath High School shooting. The Columbine High School Massacre is one more. There are at least ten more crimes in which the killers one way or another had a link with watching the movie. This only shows how powerful, convincing, and possibly also dangerous stories can be.

Historically speaking, the movie was not the first to cause such havoc; for it is often seen in the same light as Kubrick’s A clockwork Orange, which came out 23 years prior. Kubrick, too, was attacked for the violence in his movie, only that he dealt differently by retracting it.

Lev (Leo) Tolstoy telling a story to his grandchildren, circa 1909

Now, when we are being told a story things dramatically change in our brain. Not only are the language processing parts are activated, which decodes words into meaning, but the same goes for any other brain area that we would use when experiencing the events included in the story. As such, if someone tells us a narrative about how delicious certain foods are, our sensory cortex lights up — no wonder one gets hungry when watching a food show or an ad. If we’re exposed to a story about motion, our motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements, gets activated — ending up with faster heartbeats and sweaty palms. 

Indeed, stories can put your whole brain to work, especially the good ones. They have this power which allows them to transcend time, cultures, even languages. Check The Story of Eric Clapton and Majnun Layla as an example. And that’s not even it.

As Uri Hasson from Princeton added, the brains of the person telling a story and the one listening to it can actually synchronise. 

When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronised. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.

All that said, perhaps the most important story for us to tell is our own life story. More studies have actually found that the way people tell their personal stories has a monumental effect on their life satisfaction. I remember in my early 30s when I left Egypt to North America I came to meet lots of new people, which made me tell mine so many times. I noticed that every time I tell it a tad better. Just like editing your own writing, you add a certain info here, remove another there, insert a punchline, make a connection between two things; there is always something to be done to make it a better, more enjoyable narrative. 

What is essential to remember is that you are the sole director of your own movie and the warrior of your own saga. Anything other than that and you’re most definitely missing the point of life. Simply because if you’re not in control then you’ll likely be playing secondary roles in other people’s movies, helping them reach the Big Screen while totally forgetting that you, too, have a story to tell and that you, too, must be its lead star if you ever want to lead a happy life.

Storytelling is an effective tool when it comes to inspiring, empowering, convincing, and entertaining people. It is equally effective in making them connect with each other, which is why sometimes it could lead to falling in love.

As we have seen, the neurobiology of storytelling revealed that we can get others to experience whatever we experience. Somehow the brain does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Despite the limitation of language — the biggest metaphor there is — the same neurological regions are stimulated. This is how the reader literally gets to share the mental states of the writer; the better the stories, the deeper the connection between them.

In that sense, we could say that stories are a highly contagious form of communication. This, I believe, is the literal explanation of how art is the medium through which we get a glimpse of others’ realities. And it conveniently echoes with Robert Frost’s wise words: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Now thanks to recent advances in science we know that, just like everything else we experience, all these reactions go back to neurochemicals in the brains. Does it make sense now how good stories can invade and hijack our mind, heart and soul, eventually making us fall in love?


Why I Share Stuff

Artists Between Mindset and Motivation

The Writing Process and the Creative Block

On Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing

When Choosy Men Reject Women  

Why I Choose to Remain a Non-Dad for Now — Reflections on Being Childless

How Drumming Changed The Way My Brain Processes Music 

The Story of Eric Clapton and Majnun Layla

What Being Conscious Means

Personal Questions I'm Often Asked and Their Answers

Some Soulful Artists Quotes

Some Soulful Writing Quotes

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