How Storytelling Changes the Way You Think About Science

A recent article published in PLOS One found that scientific papers with good storytelling were more widely circulated by scientists and cited more often. We asked neuroscientists why this is and what this means for how we understand science.

by Bethy Squires
Dec 26 2016, 5:35pm

Photo by Kristin Rogers Photography via Stocksy

Many of us have felt a range of emotions since the election, including: rage, grief, more rage, disappointment, and yet more rage. But one feeling shared by both those who voted for and against Trump share is disbelief. Very few people thought Trump could win. And now that he has, we are scrambling for answers. We need to understand how this unthinkable thing could happen. Beyond looking for someone to blame, we want to see a direct line of cause and effect to explain what's happening to us. We want a story.

"There are scarce resources in the brain," says neuroscientist Paul J. Zak. "Attention is a very expensive program to run in the brain." We only pay attention to things that reward us for that attention. Humans follow stories closely because they stimulate dopamine (the salience chemical) and oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called the Love Hormone, or the Cuddle Hormone, as it's released when you hug, come, breastfeed, and get wrapped up in a story. "Story structure is a really effective way to engage people's brains and get them to do something," says Zak.

Politics is one area where narrative is veneered over raw data. Science is another. A recent article published in PLOS One found that scientific papers with good storytelling (sensory language, implied cause and effect, and direct calls to action) were more widely circulated by scientists and cited more often. "We were surprised by how strong the results were," says the study's co-author Ryan Kelly. Kelly and another University of Washington faculty member assisted graduate student Annie Hillier on the study.

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We've known for a while that descriptive language helps us immerse ourselves in fiction. A 2012 New York Times article explained how we get lost in a good book. Words like "cinnamon" and "soap" trigger smell-processing parts of the brain as well as language-decoding, and metaphors like "roughing it" trigger touch receptors. "The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life," wrote Annie Murphy Paul.

If the brain can't tell the difference between reading fiction and living life, how could it possibly distinguish reading fiction and nonfiction? "It seems reasonable to suggest that story language and narrative communication are the only way we have to learn anything," says Kelly. "You sort facts into a network that you have already or are in the process of building."

Perhaps that's one reason this election left so many people confused: the results didn't fit into the network that the media had built. "I think the media covers elections as though they were horse races," said historian Allan Lichtman on the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain, "with candidates sprinting ahead and falling behind according to the twists and turns of the campaigns." Lichtman believes that presidential elections are really a referendum on the party in power. Any stories about the candidates, he feels, are largely irrelevant. "Look how the pundits tied themselves into pretzels," he said. "Right before the election they said, 'Oh, based on the polls, Donald Trump can't win.' A day later, they had to twist themselves around to explain why what they said couldn't happen actually did happen."

A really good story can mask a so-so result

Is it possible for a good story to hide bad science? One of the storytelling elements Hillier's paper found could sway a reader was "a greater degree of language indicating cause-and-effect." But implying causation when you've only found correlation is a big no-no in the scientific method. Shouldn't scientists be wary of language that indicates cause and effect?

"A really good story can mask a so-so result," says Zak, "Although I think a lot of people would disagree with me."

Kelly is one of those people who disagrees. "Anything can be dangerous if it's misused," he says, adding that the study found that storytelling only made a five percent variance in which studies were cited and circulated. Scientists weren't getting hijacked by narrative—merely nudged. "The bottom line for researchers is: write a paper that's really strong in substance," says Kelly. "Substance is going to drive the result."

However, story and substance aren't always so easy to differentiate in the field. Zak explains that every science paper starts with a mystery: "Why the heck did this happen?"

"Smart scientists write using stories," he says. "Anything I send to a journal is rewritten 15 to 20 times." Zak has seen people's oxytocin levels spike when they watch an emotional story and knows that an engaging story can not only make you pay attention, but it can also make you take action.

Zak's lab conducted an experiment in which participants were shown short films about issues like children's cancer. Each film either had good story structure (dramatic tension, emotional climax) or it was flat. After viewing one of the films, the participants were asked to donate money to a charity. Participants who saw the emotionally-engaging film donated more. "When you have attention and emotional resonance, then it's kind of a monkey see, monkey do effect." Oxytocin promotes pro-social behaviors; it makes us help each other. "It makes your brain say 'humans care about cancer. I guess I'll care about cancer," says Zak.

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To limit other variables, the University of Washington team focused on one discipline—climate change—when looking at the effect storytelling had. According to Kelly, they chose climate change science because there was a large body of work to assess. But getting people to pay attention to climate change is notoriously difficult. "We didn't go after that specifically," says Kelly, "but audience fatigue is a real problem when people talk about climate change."

"It's a problem academic scientists live with," says Kelly, "why aren't people listening?" If this study can help scientists make their data stick better in people's minds, it could help save the planet. "If all we have to do is provide a little communications training, and all science becomes more effective, gets read rather than sitting on a shelf, that's fantastic."