The neuroscience of Storytelling

Working in social media since 2005, I’ve long tried to understand the human motivations behind why and how we share what we do, the end goal being for me to better understand how our own work can be more impactful when storytelling.

But it was only when I was fortunate enough to hear Beau Lotto of UCL speak at the Future of Storytelling Summit in New York this Fall did I come to understand that much of the basis for our social behaviors are genetic and grounded in our past experiences. Understanding the science behind this should be a huge advantage in understanding how we work more effectively and how people then react to our work. So I’ve attempted to distil down a fascinating subject into a few key points from which we might all learn something as we build more impactful work. I may well have utterly bastardized Lotto’s work, but I hope I have done it some justice!

[tl;dr]: Bea Lotto’s work can be boiled down into these points:

  1. Accept that everything we do and see is influenced by past experiences
  2. Question everything, create doubt, explore
  3. Seek out diversity and new experiences
  4. Embrace uncertainty (and creativity) with play

There’s also a really good video by Beau which elaborates on all of this and more. Enjoy!

Sight-alone is useless

Using the below image, Lotto explains how sight, the simplest thing the brain does, is largely useless without context. 90% of our brains use greyscale – which is why in this instance, we don’t see the real threat until we add color. Adding just 10% color presents a very different picture (and threat) below.

Beau Lotto Predator Image

Moving away from color, the below video (linked too, in case the embed doesn’t work!) shows that again, sight-alone is a futile. Only 10% of what our brain uses to see and interpret the outside world comes from our eyes. The rest is made up of instinct, experiences, societal and domestic biases. The frog clearly sees the things that instinctively it needs to survive, but cannot make the distinction between what it sees and any past experience of screen licking. (because clearly its brain is incapable of reason or meaningful memory).

What does this mean when storytelling?

Building stories that are just visual leaves a huge amount on the table. What about physical experiences (bringing retail into things) or audio (supporting TVC’s with podcasts) – both bring entirely different experiences from which the brain can draw associations and create memories. Campaigns and activity should be as multi-dimensional and stimulating as the senses of the people for which they are intended.


Context and Bias is everything

In the case of the frog, it had no ability to understand the context of the things it was seeing, so continued to try and feed. For humans, whilst massively more complex, we aren’t that much different. The information we take in visually means nothing if we have no associations to make with it. Lotto tells us (with more evidence than I!) that our brains automatically seek patterns and consistencies to things we have seen in the past (back in the day, in large part to keep us alive) in order to know how to react.

Kiki and Bubu – Beau Lotto

For example, please let me introduce you to Kiki and Bubu…two random shapes. Can you guess which shape is called which name? If you said Kiki is on the left, you are like 98% of the population whose association with the sharp edges of the left shape sound like the sharp(er) edges of the work Kiki. Why? Evolution has told us that sharp = danger and aggressive sounds = danger. Again, a Lotto example, but one which shows that our minds and opinions are shaped by, in many cases, things we aren’t even aware of.

What does this mean when storytelling?

We are entering a new era of virtual computing experiences and products where people have no previous pattern to relate to, or in AI, things that aren’t even physical. From a personal work point of view, at Microsoft, we have a laptop where you can separate the screen from the keyboard (Surfacebook), the strange glasses ‘thing’ that lets you experience a previously incomprehensible world (Hololens) or a screen on which you can write things (OneNote inking) all are real-world examples where we need to ensure that we help customers relate the new and unseen, to the old and familiar, whilst taking them into a new place. Our ads often tell stories of people accomplishing marvelous physical and mental feats, but how much do we consider how relevant these feats are if our audiences have no tangible reference? We talk about AI, but against what references will our audiences gain an appreciation of the impact of AI?


Bias, Questions and Play

Lotto tells us that as a species, doubt has always been a pretty bad thing. By the time we decided that the animal might be dangerous, it was generally too late to find out it was. Doubt is, or was, our enemy, so our minds resolve to always look for the instantly familiar – yet as storytellers or creatives, our ‘familiar’ is also defined by our previous experiences and biases.

This famous gif of a London Underground train moves in or out of the tunnel depending on which way your brain feels most comfortable with seeing it – because it’s looking for what it is most familiar and easiest to relate to. With thought though and challenging your bias, you can get it to move the other way, but it takes effort. (ok, not a huge amount, but you get the point!)

Combating bias we are told, is often achieved simply by asking questions, but the big ‘why’ questions (Simon Sinek speaks very eloquently about this, too). Questions force us to challenge what we know, our assumptions and biases – and in our world, helps create new possibilities for creativity.

Play though, also has a huge role in opening up our minds much more naturally and powerfully and is according to Lotto, nature’s way of dealing with uncertainty. Play is one of the few things that exists solely for itself and for which doubt and uncertainty are inherent. Play (and the uncertainty that comes with it) open us up to new experiences and possibilities, different and unknown outcomes, forces collaboration to achieve success and embraces diversity to a common goal – it’s the perfect antidote to a familiar world from which we all draw our biases.

What does that mean when storytelling?

Diversity of gender, religion and language amongst many others are a well-known way in which we can get a different perspective and often direction, so we must ask ourselves if we are surrounding ourselves with the right people to challenge our own biases? Are we including enough diverse opinions, outside of our immediate circles to ensure our biases are suitably challenged?

At the same time, we might also think about how we ideate. Are four, sometimes windowless walls truly the best place for a brainstorm?! We might think about creating more energetic or playful ideation environments where we might face uncertainty or where ideation is forced upon us with team activity, or even a totally radical location where interactions around a problem to be solved are totally different, gamified even and open us up to entirely new possibilities.

So to summarize:

  1. Past experiences – accept that everything we create, do and see is entirely influenced by our past experiences,. We need to think outside of our own world
  2. Questions = Doubt – questioning everything forces us to challenge our own perceptions and biases. It is good to doubt, it forces us to think differently.
  3. Seek out diversity and new experiences – we cannot create net new if we think and see how we’ve always done
  4. Embrace uncertainty (and creativity) with play – it’s the only way that as a species, we willingly embrace uncertainty and can be used for positive experiences.

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