#21 Neural Coupling – The science behind Storytelling
February 15, 2021
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In his 15-minute Ted Talk, Uri Hasson, an expert in the field of behavioral neuroscience research, explains the science behind the universal appeal of storytelling. When people hear a story, even if they are listening in a different language, we can see similar activity in the brain. Hasson sums up: “We can communicate because we have a common code that presents meaning.” There is a link between neuroscience and storytelling.


Hasson used an fMRI scanner to observe brain activity in people telling or listening to stories. This method reveals a phenomenon that Hasson calls “neural entrainment,” the reaction of brainwaves to external stimuli that seem to be somewhat consistent between individuals. This explains the power of storytelling; it literally physiologically aligns the brains of the speaker and the listener. 


Hasson wanted to use behavioral neuroscience to find out whether words trigger the observed brain activity or if they are a response to a deeper level of communication – underlying meaning. By having subjects listen to recorded gibberish, he discovered that people react to words in a consistent way, but only in the auditory cortices of the brain that process sound. The similarities did not occur in deeper layers of the brain that contemplate the meaning. When the subjects listened to stories, Hasson saw activity in the frontal cortex and the parietal cortex. To further reinforce his theory that the brain activity reflected a uniform response to meaning, Hasson had English and Russian subjects listen to the same story translated into their native language. The response in the auditory cortices was different, but in the frontal cortex and the parietal cortex, the response was the same. 


Having studied the mind of the listener and confirmed that stories create meaning in the mind in a consistent way across cultures, Hasson turned to the mind of the speaker. He found the brain activity involved in telling a story was very similar to the brain activity in listening to the story. Surveys of the participants showed that when communication was best, the high degree of alignment of speaker and listener was reflected in the similarity of brain activity. 


In the last experiment Hasson talks about, subjects listen to a story in which a character is looking for his wife. He split the listeners into two groups. Each group heard the same story, with the exception of a single sentence. One group heard that the character believes his wife is loyal; the other heard that he believes his wife is cheating. The two groups had very different reactions to the entire story. This reveals that we react to stories very similarly, but only if we share common underlying assumptions. Hasson shares his concern that politically motivated manipulation of our underlying assumptions is making it hard for us to get our brains aligned. And this type of alignment is a deep need that humans seek to fulfill.


Hasson’s focus is not neuroscience marketing, but as digital marketers and strategists, we can learn from these insights. We now know that people want to experience brainwave alignment that is produced when a listener and a speaker understand a story the same way. To achieve this, the speaker and the listener must share common assumptions. This validates the importance of understanding customer personas and speaking to your customer in a familiar voice that is easy for them to understand. Combining customer persona, market segmentation, and storytelling allows us to create alignment with our customers.