The Science Behind the Effectiveness of Emotional Stories
Do you remember the last time you heard a great speech? Chances are high that it included an emotional story. The best TED speeches for example, the ones that get the longest standing ovations, are consistently those that share their message using emotional stories. The same applies to the corporate world where there is a drumbeat now about selling ideas using good stories that grab the heart and not just the mind. It seems like emotional storytelling gets results.
But why does emotional storytelling work?
It turns out that there is a science behind why emotional stories work. Humans are wired to respond to emotional stories. Not only can we not resist getting emotional listening to these stories, our brains are also wired to remember and act on emotionally potent messages. No wonder the most successful speakers tailor their speeches to evoke strong emotions.
Here are three scientific reasons why emotional storytelling is so effective
Mirror Neurons and Emotion
Have you noticed that you get teary eyed just watching someone else cry? The scientific reason for why we get emotional by looking at others get emotional may be explained by mirror neurons. Scientists have recently discovered an area in the brain that activates when watching others do activities and, perhaps more importantly for speakers, watching others get emotional. For example, fMRI scans show that the region of the brain related to emotion would light up when we feel a certain emotion but that area would also light up when we see someone else feel that emotion. The mirror neurons ‘feel’ the emotion of others and then communicate that emotion to the brain as if the emotion is being felt by us. Now you don’t have to feel bad about getting teary eyed at the movies; you are wired to respond that way.
Not only can we not resist getting emotional listening to these stories, our brains are also wired to remember and act on emotionally potent messages.
This amazing fact allows a speaker to share an emotional experience with his audience by reliving that experience in front of them. As the speaker experiences his emotional journey, the mirror neurons ensure that each and every member of the audience is also experiencing the same emotional journey. No wonder good speakers share emotional stories with their audience.
Amygdala and Emotional Memory
Few speakers understand the significance of emotion in the formation of long term memory. In research experiments, subjects were shown pictures that were either emotionally neutral — chairs, tables, etc. — or emotionally charged, such as angry faces. The subjects tended to remember the pictures that had emotions in them better than the neutral images. Such experiments and others have led researchers to identify a part of the brain called Amygdala as critical in enhancing memory of emotional events. The Amygdala does not store emotional memories but enhances them by making sure they are noticed when the event occurs and then having a better cataloguing system so that they can be retrieved. In other words, emotions with the help of the Amygdala trigger a better filing system for memories.
In his book, Brain Rules, Molecular biologist John Medina explains this process in simple words. He says “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the Amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a ‘Post-it’ note that reads ‘Remember this’.”
Good speakers use this knowledge to enhance memory of their key messages. Their emotional stories anchor the memory of their messages, helping them be remembered long after the speech is over.
Good speakers understand that emotions drive decisions and evoke emotions that align with the decisions they are asking their audience to make.
Brain, Emotion and Decision Making
Research in the last decade has pointed to an overwhelming influence of emotion on our decisions. An article published in USA Today (August 2006) called “Study: Emotion rules the brain’s decisions” states that ‘The brain’s wiring emphatically relies on emotion over intellect in decision-making’. In a scientific experiment, participants were asked to play a gambling game where the odds of winning were identical whether they chose to play or not. The participants knew that the odds were identical, yet they chose to act more frequently when the emotions aroused were stronger. Other research on patients with brain injuries to parts of the brain related to emotion showed that the injuries not only impaired their ability to understand emotions but their ability to make decisions as well.
Good speakers understand that emotions drive decisions and evoke emotions that align with the decisions they are asking their audience to make. These strong emotions gives their audience the necessary ‘emotional energy’ to go over the ‘emotional cliff’ that is part of making a difficult decision. Now you know why car salesmen always want you to fall in love with the car before they talk about price. After all, emotion, not logic, will have the final say in your decision.
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