Your Brain on Stories

Think about the last time someone told you a story. Not just a time where someone told you something about their day, but a genuine story. A time when someone became so animated due to their excitement to share their side nothing else mattered but the every detail pouring forth from their lips.  How well do you remember it? What details do you remember? Did you relate to it personally? Have you ever retold the story to someone else? If you can provide any level of detail about the story or you answered yes to the last two questions, chances are good that your insula was being activated as you engaged in that person’s story.

What is insula?

I’m so glad you asked.

Insula is the part of the brain that activates in order to help humans relate to the same experience of pain, joy, disgust or else shared by another human. One of my interests over the past few years, besides exploring new tech, has been studying how the brain works especially when it comes to learning or relating to something new. Since story telling has begun to transform my teaching practices, I’ve begun to dig into the depths of research based in why story telling is an engaging teaching practice. My latest discovery has been an informative article posted by Leo Widrich titled “The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains.”  This particular reading brought a lot of insights to the things that I thought I once knew about student engagement.

My previous perceptions on story telling in the classroom involved the understanding that story telling was fun which is why students are more eager to engage with it thus learning more with their increased interest. However, it turns out to be a bigger, more physiological reason. To understand this, let’s first look at an anti-example. Let’s look at what happens when a student listens to a generic presentation. The presentation hits the language processing parts in the brain where word decoding happens, but that’s all that happens. Now let’s look at what happens when someone is told a story. Again, the language processing parts of our brain are activated, but so are the parts of our brain that we would use if we were experiencing the story ourselves. Our whole brain is engaged. This is such a game changer for how I have been looking at using digital story telling in my own classroom. I no longer see it as a way to just get my students interested in the concepts; I see it as a way to make learning more meaningful to students in terms of their personal learning styles. My personal philosophy has always been to incorporate as many teaching techniques as possible in order to cater to the different ways students think. Now I have a way to bring all types of learning styles to the table, but with just one strategy – storytelling.

It’s not just about me though, it’s about other teachers who follow my lead on trying these different pedagogical practices in their classrooms, too. Though I work in a very progressive school where experimentation in teaching is encouraged, I know from working in different schools for the last 5 years that not every school works the same way. For me, to teach math through the use of art, storytelling, physical activity, or any other methods rarely gets questioned by students, parents, or my administration. For others, there needs to be a solid justification for the need to bring these things into a math classroom – where they have commonly seemed out of place. This article provided not only a logical explanation for the need of storytelling in the use of learning, but it provided research based evidence for why the brain learns best through the use of storytelling. If there’s one thing that is hard to dispute, it’s research. My hope is that by showcasing this to others, more and more teachers will feel comfortable utilizing story-based projects and lessons into their contents as well. If not to shake things up a bit, but also to help more students discover new ways to connect with their learning.


4 thoughts on “Your Brain on Stories

  1. Thanks for sharing! Very insightful article. In a very simple but engaging way the author explains a complex topic. I enjoy how he presents the information in a form of a story starting with the story of who invented the sandwich. It is so fascinating how the brain works and the parts of the brain that are activated when we are being told a story. The explanation that we learn easier and remember more details when we hear stories because we think by “making cause and effect connections”, is so enlightening. It makes sense that learning is more meaningful when multiple parts of the brain are activated, as it happens when information is presented in a form of a story. I agree with you that research is a hard thing to dispute. I think also that there are many misconceptions about what digital storytelling is and some people see storytelling as plain entertainment. The more we learn about the effectiveness of storytelling in long term learning gains, the more educators will consider incorporating digital storytelling in their teaching.


  2. Wonderful insight into the power of storytelling. I think back to all of the boring Powerpoint presentations that I’ve sat through and I now wish that some of those presenters knew about the information that you shared with us. I agree with you that there is so much more to learn about how the brain works, and how we can use that knowledge in our teaching. It seems that one of the goals that we should reach for when designing our classes is – how do we activate the Insula.

    I liked the way Widrich brought together a number of different components of the brain/storytelling research to give a more comprehensive look at the topic. And I thought his suggestions for how to use storytelling in our everyday life were interesting. Perhaps the one that intrigued me the most was the suggestion to make others come up with your ideas as if they were their own ideas. Wouldn’t that be an interesting technique to bring to the classroom. Get students to come up with their own ideas that mirrored the ideas that were presented to them through stories and that taught them some key concepts from math (or other topics). I’d be interested to hear how your introduction of stories to teach math works out for you.


  3. Wow! This is really interesting! As a teacher, I totally relate in trying different teaching strategies in order to engage and reach all learners. It’s awesome to see some research on how stories are effective tools to engage students with. I think I am going to have to figure out some way to incorporate storytelling into my STEM class. Thank you so much for sharing this, I am going to have to sit down and read the article you suggested.


  4. As someone who writes in his spare time, I found the science behind storytelling to be fascinating. I have always found that when I present topics in the form of a story, my students pay closer attention. This is true even if the story I am presenting is just words without images. Since this generation is so visually oriented, I have always wondered why these visual-less stories captivate them. Now, I know! Thank you for sharing such an enlightening article.



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