The Science of Story

I came across this video from the World Science Festival called, Why We Tell Stories: Science of Narrative. In searching the web for books and articles about stories and storytelling from a scientific angle, I’ve found a handful of accessible books about the subject, the best so far being The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, which I’ve mentioned before. I’m sure there are other, more academic style books on the subject, but I am far from an academic, so those types of books don’t resonate with me.

But as the panelists discuss, the scientific study into narrative is relatively new field. Philosophers and writers have pondered the question for centuries, but only in the last 15 years or so has it been studied with any scientific rigor. Which makes sense why it’s been hard to come by a lot of information on the topic.

The video is definitely worth watching. (The panel starts about 15 minutes in.)

The panel didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but I came away with a lot of great insights.

–Research suggests that story has the ability to change us. This is a powerful idea which we can see play out in places like advertising and politics. We can be swayed to buy a particular product or vote for a particular person based on the story the advertiser or politician tells us.

–Fiction helps us to create better mental models of each other. This helps us empathize with others more easily. Researchers discovered that parts of the brain that are activated for understanding someone are also activated by story. With fiction, unlike in real life, we can understand why a character behaves a certain way (even if we don’t condone it) because we are aware of his or her inner thoughts and deepest secrets.

–Humans are designed to find meaning. Stories can help us find meaning in what seems at times to be a meaningless world.

–Stories are the social glue that hold a tribe or society together.

–Stories are simulations of the social world. Keith Oatley describes stories like they are flight simulators or virtual realities, where we can test out different social situations without the social risks.

All these ideas have me really excited for the possibility of story and what they are capable of. They truly have the ability to make us the best versions of ourselves and to inspire us to be a positive influence on the world. For me, after reading a great book or watching a great movie, I’m inspired to create. And I’ve heard from a lot of Avatar fans who have told me some amazing and heartwarming tales of how the series and characters have touched people and inspired them to study art, or deal with illness, or deal with the loss of a loved one. Your stories inspire me to keep telling more.

I love that scientists are studying story, but I wonder if treating story like it’s bacteria in a petri dish will take away some of its magic. Will there be a point where we understand its effects on the human brain so well that people can tailor stories to resonate with people? I suppose, but this would be the same as propaganda.

I recently heard a definition of art that I really liked – it must be both novel and useful. And I think that can apply to story as well. Science can probably help us make it more useful, but I don’t know that it can ever explain why some stories become great and others don’t. There are so many factors that go into telling a story, that you can have all the ingredients right, and still come out with a half-baked product.

At the end of the talk, the moderator asked what the future of story will look like. And although stories might take different forms or be consumed in different ways, the kinds of stories we tell won’t change all that much, according to Gottschall. I agree. Old stories like The Iliad and Hercules are still being retold, just in modern media. But the essence of these stories still reflect the values we find important, like courage, overcoming fear, love, and justice.

Do you think scientific study of story will have useful results? Have there been any stories that have changed you?


21 thoughts on “The Science of Story

  1. I think if science produces studies which show that storytelling reaps positive benefits for society, then individuals that may not have valued storytelling as much may find reasons to explore its power. The more people that can be reached by a story, the more we can change and grow.

  2. I was almost afraid to click on this article because of the very fear of dissecting story too much.I need something left to enjoy! lol Of course stories have changed me. They offer me a different perspective and a chance to think of the world and the people around me in a different light. Some books like “Xenocide,” by Orson Scott Card challenge the way I think about religion and science and philosophy. I am also constantly inspired by the Arthurian legends or anything that smacks of a Hero’s Quest…this is a big part of what attracts me to ATLA. I just ADORE the hero character who goes on a quest, learns new things, and changes the world for the better just by being himself. And I love the darker journey of self discovery leading the way to renewal and growth. I love the larger-than-life elements and I love the gift of humor embedded in all of it to make it human. It all just makes me really freaking happy on the inside, k? Stories are awesome.

  3. There’s been quite a few stories that have changed me. Stories like Half-Life, any Pixar movie, both of the Avatar series, to name a few of the fictional stories. It’s the stories and artwork from these things that inspire me to try and become an artist. Being able to escape from the stress of the world, even if it’s just for 20 minutes at a time, and fall in love with fictional characters as they go through their journey is such an amazing thing to me.

    I have a desire in my heart to be able to create and share these stories, so that someone else can feel this indescribable feeling and inspiration that I get from them.

    My drawing skill is about that of a six year old and discourages greatly me from drawing. But, no matter how bad I feel about my self, these stories inspire me to pick up a pen and try to better myself anyway.

    Thanks for the post. It’s been awhile since I thought about why I want to become an artist and It’s funny how such a simple question made me think so deeply about it.

    1. I apparently spent 45 minutes typing this… I really hope I didn’t misinterpret this blog post in someway :s

  4. Personally, I would not have a problem with science explaining how stories work. I have enough faith that storytelling influences people in ways so complex that, besides it taking lots of time to figure it out, it will probably be even more amazing then we can imagine. That would be a good story of its own, because a great inspiring story must be something that is beyond my current level of imagination. Take ATLA for instance. Way beyond my imagination with all its twists and brilliant moments, but also in general as a complete story. Stories like that will always influence people.
    I don’t think that when we figure it all out, it will lead to propaganda. The simple fact is that propaganda does not require full understanding of storytelling. It is already there. Usually it is about saying what people want to hear and gradually bring a new message in there.
    When we have it all figured out, I hope that it will help all people to create stories so amazing as ATLA. Because the world simply needs more like those.

    1. I heartily agree and I would add that the distinction between stories and propaganda can be thin, sometimes.

      I think it was the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit who said that stories are not always about sincerity. They need to be crafted as if they speak to someone individually but actually resonate with many. This does require, if not a full understanding of storytelling, a very detailed understanding of our fellow human beings and the way they think.

      In this way, stories and propaganda both need to be crafted with their audiences in mind and the audience’s mind.

      I would add to the definition of story and say that, while it doesn’t have to be novel, it should reveal and help us analyze a facet of human nature that we are still exploring.

      I particularly liked what you said about saying what people want to hear but bringing in a new message, gradually. It sounds a lot like Mike’s last post or the one before when he talked about stories as “sugar-coated” pills that help us swallow difficult lessons.

  5. I think non fiction has erroneously focused a long time on drably saying how it is, and storytellers have been focused on saying how it feels. Since most people in the U.S. remember where they were on 9/11/2001 we can also know that stories with an emotional component are more sticky. We resonate emotionally. The more our stories convey that resonant emotional comonent, the more impact they have. This teacher for example is a scientific storyteller Another example is the youtube videos on the Crash Course channel The point is, how it feels is the power of the engine of storytelling from my perspective.

  6. “Do you think scientific study of story will have useful results? Have there been any stories that have changed you?”

    I think that scientific study of story is far more likely to say something useful about human nature than it is to teach us how to write better stories. Storytelling is an art-form that requires intuition, empathy, and years of practice, and scientific understanding will never change that. Attempting to work in elements that are “scientifically important” could easily result in a story that seems manipulative rather than organic, so it’s probably best for writers to keep their current methods no matter what science learns about the nature of storytelling.

    As for stories that have changed me… I think I’ve mentioned the effect Legend of Korra had on me on this site before, so it might be more interesting to speak generally this time. I’ve been an avid reader since I was very young, and I feel like the stories I’ve read have helped me learn to deal with emotions that felt overwhelming (I remember, as a kid, being so devastated by the death of a dog in one of the Little House on the Prairie books that I couldn’t continue… now, I intentionally seek out tragic stories, because I’ve learned how to handle it) and recognize parts of myself that would have otherwise been discouraged and neglected (particularly my strong interest in martial arts). Stories have helped me learn that things usually aren’t black and white, that there’s always more to a person than “good” or “bad,” and that it’s possible to empathize and understand someone whose behavior is hurtful and dangerous without overlooking their actions, and they motivate me to want to know what drives people in real life, too. I’m not sure I want to know the sort of person I’d be if I wasn’t so interested in stories!

  7. There’s a wonderful This American Life (speaking of story) from a while back about trying to use numbers to quantify the unquantifiable ( Any time I start to worry about science—or really formula—overtaking art, I go back to that episode. There’s an unseen element at work, something unquantifiable in the equation that takes us by surprise, and I always find that reassuring.

    As for stories that have changed me… A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Dune, and Carter Beats the Devil are the first that come to mind.

  8. I totally agree with that last paragraph. I’m a film major, and I’ve thought a lot about how the internet and new technology is changing traditional distribution platforms like movie theaters and TV. Who knows where TV and film will be in a decade when the world is evolving so quickly?

    However, I feel confident in my career choice because even if Hollywood as we know it changes dramatically because humanity’s desire for compelling stories won’t go away. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces shows how storytelling really hasn’t changed all that much from the days of the Greeks. There is something universal in storytelling that resonates with people throughout the ages.

    So even if the form and the way in which we tell stories changes in the coming years, there will always be a market for good narrative.

  9. “…I wonder if treating story like it’s bacteria in a petri dish will take away some of its magic. Will there be a point where we understand its effects on the human brain so well that people can tailor stories to resonate with people? I suppose, but this would be the same as propaganda.”

    I would think that the element of story WOULD be considered a sort of microorganism or bacteria in that every body reacts differently to a single bacteria or antidote. Just like how there is no perfect cure for a given condition because each person reacts differently to a given treatment, everybody reacts differently to a given story. Hence we embark on the potentially endless pursuit of the perfect story (though most of us would be satisfied if it helps make the lives a majority of the people exposed a little bit better).

    Although I don’t think achieving the perfect story equates to propaganda, like propaganda, story is often made to sway or control the emotions of its targeted audience, which often times would be the goal of the storyteller one would presume. (Not to say it isn’t interesting when the final feelings are left open to the audience at the conclusion).

  10. There’s only so much that science can explain, the way I see it. Trying to define the magic of a story is like trying to explain why humans feel love, or any other passion. Science can gather up plenty of statistics about trends in behavior, but that’s about it I think. The difference is that story is solely subjective in its core, and science objective. As a student preparing for a career in healthcare, I labs teach us literally to keep our research as objective as possible – no personal opinions, no deciding based on “gut” feelings, only what you can test and prove. It’s also why doctors or surgeons are usually advised not to (or even denied permission to) operate on patients they know personally; emotional pressure clouds judgment and accuracy. This is based solely on physical procedures, of course, since things like patient interaction and advising surely need a lot of care. But scientific studies alone – which are all objective – seem to be the very opposites of stories. The two fields are completely different and influential in their own way, and to me that difference makes it impossible for science to explain how stories work. The way I see it, science defines the human body, but stories define the soul.

    That aside, of course stories have affected me! I guess I’m not very original when I say that it was Avatar: The Last Airbender that had the hugest impact. It’s actually made me compare the impacts of art versus healthcare many times during my studies, and I’ll have to admit that it’s also made me think about my decision to pursue science (instead of my glaring lifetime obsession with art). Story is a form of art, and when combined with visual art like in A:TLA it’s just the most beautiful experience to witness. The impact A:TLA had made me realize that, contrary to my beliefs, the fine arts are in fact very beneficial to society, even if they’re labeled as entertainment. The only thing I had going was that I wanted to use my handiwork abilities for something that would really *help* people, and that a fine arts major would be more for self-gain. And after my emotional attachments were made to Avatar, well… Heh, they do say that happiness defines the quality of life, not healthiness. Health can be a big influence, just like money, but emotions are the true treasures of our world. It kind of hit me a little late, after I’m already well on my way to healthcare school. So to be honest, I’m a little stuck now and tend to stare long and hard at all my art supplies laying around, but I’m happy to have realized this. Dunno what’ll happen. Well…you asked how stories have affected me! And yes, I do give full credit to the story you created for making me think about all that. Thank you.

    Something I want to mention though, is the one connection I see between great science research and great stories: it’s never done alone. To me, it seems apparent that the more people are involved, the greater the result. The idea can start with one person, but to reach its full potential always seems to take tons of people, as seen in any end credits to a movie. I believe the same goes for writing; even novels are passed through editors. A story team already starts the pattern of connecting many ideals and opinions into one, which is why I always love that you and Bryan write as a duo. But – I have no idea if it’s in my place to say this – at the same time, I do wish that The Legend of Korra sported a writing team as large as its predecessor’s. As much as I adore LoK, I just believe that any story could be even more beautiful with more help and influence from others. I think it’s because stories are meant to inspire many, and it’s more likely to do so if many have worked on it. With a greater collection of ideas and values, a greater variety of people can be reached out to. I’m just mentioning this based on your statement about finding ways to better tell a story; it’s only in my personal belief that the best way to make a story work for many is to have many be involved in it. But while I hope you can have more writers for LoK, I still adore the show to no end. Thanks for giving us all a wonderful story to be inspired by!

    …This comment is long. (Sorry)

  11. Mike, I have a quick question about Book 2’s production. Did Studio Mire mess up the initial animation sent to them forcing them to re-do it? That’s the rumor circulating around and I just wanted to get official word.

    1. Hi. Please understand, this blog really isn’t the place for production-related questions, nor am I at liberty to discuss such matters. But rest assured, Studio Mir’s work is of the highest quality and they aren’t redoing anything, so you can put that rumor to rest.

  12. For anyone interested in the science of story as it applies to politics or economics, there’s a great post at You Study Politics, Right? about how stories enhance our understanding of the social sciences:

    Matt Dickenson also recommends a book called [Jane Austen, Game Theorist](

    As a political science major, it’s nice to know that two of my main interests coincide somewhere.

  13. As someone who is exploring the power of narrative to raise awareness, resonate with minds, and affect change for a better future, this is an invaluable resource. Thank you very much.

  14. I think it will have useful results to help to understand our intellectual faculties better (in this case, imagination, understanding, perception and interpretation) and creativity of how it works, it’s process whether by creating a story or listening/watching/reading the story.
    Many stories changed me (I could lose the count) for a much better understanding what’s around me and even about myself, I learn a lot more people not only by the characters but also discussing about the story and it’s characters with my friend and internet users, each person has a different interpretation even if we like some of the same stories, it still resonates differently in each individual, we can learn a lot from it and helps add new information.
    for example, when me and my friend like the same characters, it’s always for different reasons, my friend is from an emotional perspective while me is from an analytical perspective, since our very different personalities traits allow us to have different interpretations of the same character or story.

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