There have now been a number of fMRI studies that have examined the effects that stories have on our brains. Before I jump in to a couple of those, here is a quick definition of fMRI for non-neuroscientists: an imaging technology that shows which parts of the brain are activated in response to a given stimulus. There, that wasn’t so complicated, was it?

Uri Hasson’s group at Princeton has been very active in the area of neuro-imaging and communication. They were the first group to image the brains of storyteller and listeners.

Step 1: they asked a student to tell an unrehearsed real-life story. She chose to tell a story about two boys competing for her affections on prom night. (I’ve read it and believe me it’s no ‘Carrie’). They recorded her brain activity while she was telling the story.

Step 2: they played a recording of the student telling the story to eleven other students while recording images of their brain activity.

Step 3: they asked the eleven listeners to complete a questionnaire to evaluate their level of comprehension of the story.

Step 4: they compared brain images of teller and listeners as the story unfolded.

If your brain is activated by the same stimuli as mine, I think you will agree that the results are fascinating.

Firstly, Hasson and co-workers found that activation of the listeners’ brains closely resembled that of the speaker, albeit with a 1-3 second delay. (They called the effect ‘speaker-listener neural coupling’ because neuroscientists like to talk like that). Secondly they found that in some subjects and in some brain areas, listener brain activity actually anticipated speaker activity (i.e. the listener was able to predict what was coming). Finally, they found that those listeners who understood the story best demonstrated strong ‘neural coupling’ with the speaker. Most interesting of all, they discovered that anticipatory brain activity was the strongest marker of understanding.

In another study with different group of colleagues, Hasson has subsequently shown that activity in the brains of those listening to speeches are more synchronised when the speeches are powerful. This presumably shows us that we all experience the same speech when we are engaged but our minds wander hither and thither when we lose interest.

Sometimes these studies leave me feeling that very expensive technology has just told me what I already know. However, I do think that there are important implications for leaders. After all, influence is the defining work of the leader and I most leaders would surely love to be make their teams think and feel the way that they do. These studies suggest that that is exactly what happens during effective communication. They also suggest that true stories are a very effective way to make it happen.

In my next post I will explore what happens to oxytocin, the empathy hormone, when we hear a story.