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  • Writer's pictureVedran Soric

11. Be a great stryteller with a little help from Daniel Ambrose

Experiencing a story changes our neurochemical processes, and stories are a powerful force in shaping human behavior. In this way, stories are not only instruments of connection and entertainment, but also of control. We don't need the science of storytelling to tell a story. However, we need science if we want to understand the roots of our storytelling drive and how stories shape beliefs and behavior, often below conscious awareness. As we will discuss, science can help us defend ourselves in a world where people are constantly trying to push our buttons with the stories they tell. The better we understand how stories unfold in our bodies, the better equipped we are to thrive in the story-rich environment of the twenty-first century.

Think of your attention as a spotlight. When someone tells you a story, they are trying to control that light. They manipulate you.

We all do it every day, all the time. You try to keep your attention while telling a story to colleagues over coffee; I'm trying to hold your attention while I tell a story about the science of storytelling.

There are many different ways to get other people's attention - and all of them instinctively or intentionally tap into basic human drives. Here, for example, is a very short story attributed to Ernest Hemingway.

How does this story make you feel?

I can speak for myself: when I first encountered it as a student, it captured my attention immediately. And when I realized what it meant after the blow, I felt a punch in my gut. The story works because it triggers our natural negativity—that is, the ingrained human tendency to focus on the bad, threatening, dangerous things in life. It especially activates the fear and despair that we would feel if our child died, even if we don't have our own yet.

We're really good at shining a spotlight on what might hurt us—or hurt those close to us, especially our children. What happens in our bodies when we shine the spotlight on a threat? We are stressed.

And what is stress?

It's a tool nature gave us to survive lion attacks - in other words, stress mobilizes our body's resources to survive an immediate physical threat. Adrenaline pumps and our bodies release the hormone cortisol, sharpening our attention and increasing strength and speed. But unlike other animals, humans have the gift and curse of being susceptible to stress even when we are not facing a direct physical threat. We do this by telling ourselves and each other stories. They are the best way we have to communicate potential threats to other people — and help each other prepare to overcome those threats.

Most of us will never face a flesh and blood lion, but in stories we turn lions into powerful symbols of a beautiful death. This is the essence of many stories: facing and overcoming dangers, which will persist, multiply and mutate in our minds and, in some cases, become metaphors for more immediate dangers.

As Neil Gaiman writes in his novel Coraline:

"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated."

When someone starts a story with a dragon, they are exploiting the negative bias and manipulating the stress response, whether they intend to or not. We're drawn to stressful stories because we're always afraid that it might happen to us, whatever "it" might be—and we want to imagine how we'd deal with all kinds of dragons that might pop up in our lives, from family strife to layoffs to crime. .

But we don't necessarily need dragons to get attention, do we? At the very beginning, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, she slowly introduces us to a baby, alone in the world, under constant threat. We instinctively side with the "boy who lived" because he is so vulnerable at the beginning of the story.

Most Star Wars movies take another approach, trying to evoke a sense of awe—an emotional response to something so vast that we can't immediately grasp it—which research shows drives curiosity-related behaviors, like turning to other people for answers.

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