Your Brain Responds More To Stories Than Facts
When you hear facts, only two parts of your brain are activated—the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area. When you hear a story, many areas are activated, including your amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, thalamus, and motor cortex.
Source: The Neuroscience Of Storytelling Will Make You Rethink The Way You Create, Medium, 1/3/18 and The Neuroscience of Meaning Making, Coursera, 1/10/19
Al Pacino’s portrayal of coach Tony D’Amato in the movie Any Given Sunday includes one of the most moving locker room speeches of all time. The speech was inspired by a struggling team. The result? It stoked the bonds of brotherhood, sending players cascading onto the field in an explosion of glory and athletic excellence.
But why was the speech so powerful?
Evolutionary science tells us that humans are uniquely hardwired to react powerfully to a great story. Storytelling enlivens our brains, enhances learning, captures our attention, and influences our behavior far more than facts alone.1 Most importantly, it’s a strategy that financial advisors can use to forge deeper relationships with their clients. Read on to find out how you can use it.
First, Why Stories Are So Powerful
D’Amato’s iconic speech moves us so powerfully because it takes advantage of our neurological hardwiring. We’re evolutionarily designed to vicariously experience and unconsciously mimic the same chemical reactions and emotions exhibited by the heroes of our stories. Recent neuroscientific studies attribute this compelling evolutionary response to the presence of central nervous system cells in our bodies called mirror neurons—powerful subconscious drivers of our behavior that lead us to observe, decode, then mirror the actions of others.2
Mirror Neurons Represent an Ancient Feature of Our Evolutionary Hardwiring
Mirror neurons unconsciously drive us to empathize with others—a deeply rooted, primal, survival-led instinct. Studies of sports and politics refer to the concept as a ‘spectator effect,’ where spectators experience a powerful vicarious rush of emotions and mirror hormones when they see their favored candidate or team charge to victory.3
When a team scores a winning touchdown, for example, the players’ testosterone and dopamine levels spike—and the spectators’ levels do, too. Testosterone levels can, amazingly, remain elevated for days afterwards in spectators and players, causing us to feel stronger, happier, and more confident.3
When a great story is told, the people that hear those stories react much like spectators at a football game, and the hormonal and chemical effects are very similar. Scientific studies show that these hormonal changes are powerful directors of our behavior, too.4
But how can you use these scientific insights to enhance your interactions with clients? To understand, we need to look a little closer at the neural processes at play. Here’s a quick primer of the science behind the story.
Second, Your Brain on Stories
Evolutionarily speaking, human attention is designed to be a sparse resource, so only the most emotionally stimulating appeals are likely to capture it.5 D’Amato’s words were specifically chosen to hit the athletes hard in their metaphorical gut for exactly that reason—he caught their attention via the use of a deeply personal monologue, powerfully engaging their mirror neurons.
When mirror neurons are activated in this way, it also increases our levels of oxytocin—a bonding hormone—which meant that D’Amato’s’ words also carried a uniting effect.4 That approach could be just as useful for an advisor seeking to bond with a client.
Stories Connect With One of the Oldest Parts of the Human Brain—the Limbic System
The limbic region of our brain is a true neural powerhouse. When we hear a great story, key regions are activated simultaneously and repeatedly to produce a powerful emotional response that directly influences our actions, including our financial decisions.6
Key regions include:
- Amygdala: Responsible for the expression of emotions
- Hypothalamus: Responsible for the expression of brain chemicals that power our emotions
- Hippocampus: Governs long-term memory and learning
- Thalamus: Relays information between emotional and rational decision-making regions of the brain
- Motor Cortex: Activated if a person hears a story involving actions, such as kicking or running
If you can connect with a client emotionally using evocative metaphors and analogies that trigger mirror neuron activity, you’ll do more than just pique their attention. You’ll help them learn and retain any financial information that you’ve shared with them as a result of powerful thalamus and hippocampal activity. This is why using stories that arouse emotions is a far more impactful strategy than simply relying on facts alone.
How Our Brains Respond to Different Types of Stories
One easy way to choose your storytelling approach is whether you want your client to feel energized, by targeting the SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System), or calmed, by targeting the PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System).7