“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said.
Human beings are storytelling creatures. Think of the best presentations or TED Talks you’ve heard, and chances are the most inspirational ones have been where the presenter used stories and pictures to convey his or her message.
For over 40,000 years – at least that’s how old we think the first cave paintings are – telling stories has been one of our most fundamental communication methods.
After all, a story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think. We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, work, or our friends and family.
How our brains become more active when we tell stories
We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative?
It’s quite simple.
If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with a monotonous speaker giving us facts through a series of boring bullet points, a certain part of the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. It hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. That’s it, nothing else happens.
But when we are told a story, things change, and change dramatically. Broca’s area in our brain is activated, but so is any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story!
If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active.
In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a fMRI machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up.
In another study, participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.
And, as it turns out, the simplest stories are the best. Using simple language and low complexity is the best way to activate those other brain regions. Reduce the number of adjectives or complicated nouns in your writing to increase its power.
Storytelling Applications for Language Learning
If stories help us learn, then it naturally follows that stories will be an effective language learning tool.
Through their ability to activate many more parts of the brain while studying, they strengthen the neural pathways created around grammar and vocab in a much more effective way.
Stories provide grammar and words in context, which makes them much more interesting and effective than other methods.
Alsina Publishing created LingoBites specifically to harness the power of storytelling in an approachable way for learning a language. We publish stories by authors from all over the world, translate them, and make them available through the LingoBites app.