May 22, 2019 | Storytelling

A Deep(er) Dive on the Science of Storytelling


The science of storytelling is fascinating to say the least. The effect a well-told, individually relevant story with a meaningful narrative has on the brain should not be ignored, especially as it pertains to fundraising, donor relations, stewardship, and advancement.

To that end, it is critical to explore the science of storytelling on a deeper level. This knowledge allows you to fully utilize it in order to better connect, engage, and motivate donors, and other constituents.

From the beginning, we’re wired for connection.

In the earliest days and months of our lives, the brain develops at an incredible speed. In fact, if babies’ bodies grew at the same rapid pace as their brains, they would weigh 170 pounds by one month of age. The initial three years of life see the fastest rate of brain development in the entire human life span.

Much of this unbelievable development is in forming an understanding of the nonverbal cues that make up interpersonal connections. Babies have the potential to recognize a sense of connection and being wanted starting as early as seven months. This sense of connection allows us to construct our own stories and engage in others’ stories.

So from the very beginning of our lives–and the development of our brains–the foundation for the impact that storytelling has on us is formed through our interpersonal connections.

And those connections develop into empathy.

As we experience increasingly complex interpersonal connections, the brain begins to match the patterns of neural activity as perceived in other individuals. We essentially begin to mimic each other and this process of imitation is a key concept in the process of empathy.

A subset of neurons in the brain, known as mirror motor neurons which exist in the premotor portion of the brain’s prefrontal cortex play a key role in imitation and, subsequently, empathy.

Studies show that as you observe another person perform a goal-specific action, those premotor mirror neurons fire action potentials as if you were preparing to do the task yourself. Some people will experience high levels of matched neural activity while others may exhibit little to no matched neural response at all depending on the particular conditions of the interaction.

Our empathy then leads to narrative transportation–the key ingredient in engagement.

As you read a story, all of the influence of all the interpersonal connections you’ve had in your life, and the subsequent empathy you’ve developed, come together to engulf you in that story. You imagine the details, the emotions, the sensations of the story and you are, almost literally, transported into that story in your brain.

This narrative transportation effect that stories have on the brain can literally change your beliefs and worldview. And this transportation results in the release of oxytocin and cortisol which together have been shown to increase the propensity of people to give.

Which is why individual impact stories are critical.

So the conclusion of the science of storytelling is clear–telling stories to donors about the impact that their donation is making on individual human beings is the best way to engage them in your mission. And telling those stories in as much detail and with as much clarity as possible helps heighten that engagement.

Easier said than done.

The key is to consider stories–and the supporting science of storytelling–as core to your strategy, plan stories into all your communications in some form by default, and create a culture of storytelling within your organization. Then apply the processes and tools that can make storytelling easier and more efficient.

Want to learn more about Mythos?