Your Brain On Storytelling : Short Wave Storytelling can be a powerful tool to convey information, even in the world of science. It can also shift stereotypes about who scientists are. We talked to someone who knows all about this - Liz Neeley, the Executive Director of Story Collider, a nonprofit focused on telling "true, personal stories about science." You can tell us your personal science stories by emailing, shortwave@npr.org. Plus, do some #scicomm with Maddie on Twitter — she's @maddie_sofia.

Your Brain On Storytelling

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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SOFIA: Let me introduce you to Liz Neeley. As a young scientist making her way through the world, she didn't think that storytelling had a place in science.

LIZ NEELEY: I wanted to be the most serious, scientific scientist who ever lived. So I thought that storytelling was somewhere between a distraction and a danger. And so I thought that storytelling was, like, hand-waving, that it was what you did when your data was weak in order to sort of nudge people towards your preferred interpretation.

SOFIA: But Liz eventually came around to storytelling in a big way.

So what changed your mind about it?

NEELEY: I started working in science communication and wanted to understand how people make sense of the world, how do they make judgments. So I kept reading these papers that told me narratives are powerful and important.

SOFIA: Right.

NEELEY: And I hated it.

SOFIA: Yeah, 'cause you were wrong.

NEELEY: I was so mad.

(LAUGHTER)

NEELEY: I love being right.

SOFIA: Who doesn't?

Now Liz runs The Story Collider, an organization that puts people onstage to tell personal stories about science.

NEELEY: Stories are a mechanism that human beings evolved to help us package information about who we are, how we survive, what we care about and then spread those ideas through time and space.

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SOFIA: So today on the show, the science behind storytelling - what makes it so powerful and how it can shift stereotypes about who scientists can be.

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SOFIA: Science communication is near and dear to my heart. I mean, I host a science podcast. And there's definitely data out there suggesting that in a lot of situations, people remember things better and are more engaged by stories versus just a list of facts. So I asked Liz about it.

NEELEY: Yeah. Some of the best evidence for this idea that narrative has differing effects than a list of facts comes out of health communication.

SOFIA: OK.

NEELEY: So think about this - like, you've got a diagnosis of breast cancer or cervical cancer. This is very frightening, high stakes.

SOFIA: Sure.

NEELEY: How do we give you information that help you make decisions about what kind of tests or operations or interventions you want? And so people study things, like designing brochures to have narrative text versus bullet point facts. They create films that include women talking about their own breast cancer experiences and compare that, again, to just facts.

And what we see is that, overall, stories are more relatable and interesting, so people want to listen to them in the first place, and they're more likely to, like, engage all the way through. And then most importantly, people understand the information that's packaged in that narrative format better.

SOFIA: Right. So one of the reasons that storytelling is so powerful is because of something called narrative transportation.

NEELEY: That's right.

SOFIA: Tell me about that.

NEELEY: We all know this delicious feeling of being swept into a story world.

SOFIA: Right.

NEELEY: It's like when you're watching a movie and time passes.

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: Or when you're reading a book and you can't hear someone calling your name. You forget about your surroundings, and you're entirely immersed in the story. That's called narrative transportation. And we care about it for science communication because when people are deeply transported, they're engaged in all this work, mentally - cognitive and affective, so intellectual and emotions.

And when that's happening, they're able to engage in perspective-taking, so they imagine motivations of other people. They're trying to guess what's going to happen next. They're predicting the future. And all of those things are what allow people to shift attitudes so that when they come back out of the story world into regular life, maybe they think about a topic differently.

SOFIA: Absolutely. So I know some work has been done using, like, fMRI machines to look at people's brains...

NEELEY: Right.

SOFIA: ...While they listen to information.

NEELEY: Right.

SOFIA: Tell me about that a little bit.

NEELEY: So stories are not processed in a single part of the brain - not surprising. They're activating all kinds of networks.

SOFIA: Right.

NEELEY: Both emotional as well as language processing and other things like that. But we know a couple of things that I think are cool. One is if I'm telling you an amazing story, as I'm thinking about that, my brain is pulling up memories. As you listen to me say it, so is yours. Your brain and my brain actually sort of form echoes of each other.

SOFIA: Cool.

NEELEY: This is called speaker-listener neural coupling.

SOFIA: OK.

NEELEY: So we know that around sensory information. We also know that when listeners are hearing a story where there's tension or suspense, or they're reading it, that our brains are active in patterns that are forecasting the future, trying to guess what's happening next. I have a clip I love from a paleontologist named David Evans. Maddie, he is out in the field in South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE STORY COLLIDER")

DAVID EVANS: Searching for fossils - notably, dinosaur eggs and nests.

NEELEY: He has been unsuccessful.

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EVANS: We did it for three, four, five hours. Lunch came. We hadn't found anything. We did it for another five hours. We covered the same spots that we covered in the morning. And by the end of the day, all we had to show for it were worm burrows and mud cracks.

NEELEY: Three days, hard work, no luck. He's frustrated to the point where now he's just starting to pick up rocks and throw them, like a little kid.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

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EVANS: And I just pulled a rock from the cliff. And before I hocked it, I looked at it.

(LAUGHTER)

EVANS: And it's a good thing.

(LAUGHTER)

EVANS: I was holding in my hand a perfectly preserved dinosaur egg.

SOFIA: Oh.

NEELEY: (Laughter).

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EVANS: And my jaw dropped. And I just retraced the arc of my arm from where I had picked up that rock in the cliff face, and we turned, and beside it was the outline of another egg and another egg and another egg - six eggs in a perfect line. We had found a dinosaur nest.

(LAUGHTER)

NEELEY: The thing is, like, I will never forget hearing this story now. But the first draft of it came in a very scientific way that was like, the day we found the dinosaur nest (laughter), we'd been quite frustrated. But don't worry - we were successful, and the find was very important to our research.

(LAUGHTER)

NEELEY: But what storytelling does is it just, like, pulls you into that moment, and you can just see him retracing his arm, you know, his jaw dropping. It's marvelous.

SOFIA: I like it.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: So I guess the other thing is, like, because stories can be so powerful, are you nervous about how people use stories? Like, are you nervous...

NEELEY: Absolutely.

SOFIA: OK.

NEELEY: Stories are like any other powerful tool. They can be used to whatever ends...

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: ...The teller desires. And so stories are, I don't know, like hammers, right? They can build houses. They can also break kneecaps.

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: And so...

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: Dang. I didn't expect it to go there, but I like it.

NEELEY: Well, I think when you look around the world right now, how much of that rhetoric is people struggling to control the narrative? And so we know this is tactically important as well as - you don't want to treat your audience as someone you're manipulating.

SOFIA: Right.

NEELEY: Respecting their agency and thinking about whether this story is representative of broader truths, rather than an outlier or something you've cherry-picked. Those are dimensions of thinking about ethical use of storytelling for science communication. And fortunately, there's people who study that.

SOFIA: Yeah. All right. OK. I know one of the things that you think is really important is who gets to tell science stories, whose stories are told and on what stages. Talk to me about that.

NEELEY: As a society, who we choose to put on stage, which stories get told, when and to whom, that - those are powerful decisions. They signal all sorts of things about hierarchy and importance and prestige. And for a long time, the only science stories we've heard have been a very narrow group of people, and quite frankly, it's been white men from Western countries.

I think we have to look at the fact that science is done by so many people. Stories about science, especially from people who don't fit these outdated stereotypes of who a scientist is, are so important. When you look at someone, do you think, is that a scientist? You see them walking down the street.

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C BRANDON OGBUNU: Officer No. 1 stood with the gun loaded, pointed towards me, ready to go, ready to be a hero. Officer No. 2 approached - are you carrying any drugs, sir? Sir - right? I guess I respect that.

(LAUGHTER)

OGBUNU: No, officer. After a thorough search - and I mean thorough - the interest turns to the contents of my backpack.

NEELEY: So, for example, Brandon Ogbunu took - our stage to tell a story.

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OGBUNU: I was a senior at Howard University, a chemistry and mathematics major at the time. And like most people at that stage, my backpack told a lot about me.

NEELEY: He's a New Yorker.

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OGBUNU: There was some moldy potato chips.

(LAUGHTER)

NEELEY: He's a boxer (laughter). He's a man of many talents.

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OGBUNU: Some sketch pads and some notepads.

NEELEY: He's also a black man.

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OGBUNU: A couple mixtapes. And I mean real mixtapes, not the stuff that you guys talk about.

(CHEERING)

OGBUNU: And much, much more. Officer No. 2 had to sift through the contents. And I heard all the ruffling. Eventually, Officer 2 emerged with an object of interest and slammed it on the hood of the car, and under the flashlight, it went - Lehninger, Nelson and Cox, "Principles Of Biochemistry," Second Edition

(LAUGHTER)

OGBUNU: Officer 2 was persistent, however, and ruffled through the contents of the bag and emerged with another item, a little bit smaller, slammed it on the hood of the car - a draft of my senior thesis, highly annotated, with the title "The Liberation Of RNA."

(LAUGHTER)

NEELEY: Think about, like - we're so worried about what is going to happen because we're thinking about how many outcomes with police other people have not survived.

SOFIA: Yeah.

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OGBUNU: Eventually, Officer No. 1 said, you can get your things and go. Now, this was supposed to be humiliating. Here I am, minding my business, and I have to stop and put all my things back into the bag. But sometimes resistance is best dealt quietly.

NEELEY: I love this because at the end, Brandon says...

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OGBUNU: I figured out a way to make this work for me. I took my sweet [expletive] time...

(LAUGHTER)

OGBUNU: ...Putting my materials back into that bag, one by one. And with it, I was saying two things - A, them hands y'all got on them guns could help me put these things back in this bag; and B, the things I'm putting in this bag, the ideas they contain, some mine, some from others, are valuable. I have people in the world who love me. I have dreams of one day being a great professor.

NEELEY: Storytelling is about being seen for the totality of who you are.

SOFIA: Yeah.

NEELEY: And I believe you deserve to be known. You deserve to be known for your full self. And scientists, for a very long time, have tried to be a very narrow, small portion of who they are, and storytelling helps illustrate the beautiful complex, whole humanity.

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SOFIA: Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Viet Le. Many thanks to Patrick Ian Boyd (ph) for all his engineering help and to Berly McCoy for fact-checking. I'm Maddie Sofia. You've been listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. See you tomorrow.

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