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Chronicles of Cognition

by Ruqaiya Mithani

art by Caitlin O’Neil

I’d like to tell you a story. But this story isn’t one you’ve heard before. There are no dragons or mermaids, no valiant main characters or love triangle tropes, and not a single fairy god - mother in sight. There is magic, although not in any of the typical wand-holding, Latin spellbook-invoking ways. The magic in this story lies in the transformative power of words.

Stories imprint on our minds from a young age – as much as we interact with them, they interact with us too. They change the way we think and process information and these changes remain embedded in our brain circuitry long after we mature. These tales, rooted in the most absurd imaginary characters, dreams of the future, and the mysteries of natural phenome - na, are essential to our growth. The stories we encounter in our primary years give us our first tools for processing our own lives and even resurface as we transition to the professional world in industries like communications, education, and medicine.

Once Upon a Time

A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away known as your childhood, there began a story. Despite the generational, cultural, and structural differences in the stories we associate with our adolescence, they all accomplish a common goal: stories are a means of sharing information. Stories are always trying to tell us something and our brains are able to encode the information we hear as if it were something we watched happen in front of us. A study seeking to understand the mechanisms for memory recall specifically relating to stories found that participants who heard stories and those who watched them had activated similar areas in the brain when experiencing them, encoding them to memory, and recalling their memory [1]. This finding demonstrates that despite the difference in mode of transmission, individuals were able to process stories they heard as if they had experienced them themselves. In applying this theory to our own experiences, even if you only read or were told a story about a girl walking down a yellow brick road meeting a scarecrow and tin man, your brain would remember it in the same way it would if you had watched it happen.

In adolescence, we are told stories at every opportunity presented to us: before bed, at school, at the movies, and even at family barbecues. While the details of these stories invariably differ, they are powerful tools for learning about our world. So whether you have heard them while gathered around a sputtering campfire, saw them flickering across a television screen, or read them from the pages of a worn old book, stories offer us the same powerful messages and sequences.

When we listen to or read stories as children, our brains recognize and discern patterns to help us process information more effectively, using the structure of the story to guide our listening [2, 3]. This is called sequence learning and is one of the primary methods that the human brain uses to make predictions and decisions [4]. During sequence learning, the brain uses pat - terns it has learned from past experiences to make predictions about the next item in the sequence [4]. Several mechanisms such as chunking information, where related items are grouped together and thought of as that group in other contexts, and creating transition and time rules, where the brain learns how to approximate the time between items and the order of those items in sequences are employed by the brain to carry out these sequence learning processes [4, 5]. These processes activate several brain structures associated with memory formation, reward processing, and emotional behaviors, and allow the brain to not only learn the information but then apply it to make predictions when these sequences reoccur [4]. In the context of stories, sequence learning is the reason why we can not only recognize tropes like “enemies to lovers” or the “chosen one,” but anticipate how situations will play out without knowing the exact ending [2]. Because we’ve seen similar patterns before, an uptight and aloof protagonist suddenly being forced to share an office with her sworn enemy is a sure sign that romance is brewing.

Equipped with the patterns we’ve cataloged through sequence learning, we can use reinforcement learning to update this information. Reinforcement learning utilizes both the environment and our past experiences and beliefs to make better decisions in the future thus demonstrating how our brains are continually updating our belief-based structures [4, 6]. For example, after studying for an exam all day and night, we may expect to get a perfect score like Elle Woods did on her LSATs. But when we receive a barely passing C-, our brain updates our expectations and the sequence from which those expectations came and may cause us to change our study habits in the future. In environments that are associated with rewards, the brain further updates patterns so we can make decisions based on the risks we may encounter and what may give us the greatest return [4, 7, 8]. After learning that getting a perfect score was not as easy for us compared to Elle, our brains might weigh the risks and rewards associated with cheating to get the score we want.

With the repetition of stories and overlapping messages, young brains begin to construct sequences and structures to predict what happens next within a new story through sequence learning. As we continue to stack up personal experiences, our repertoire of patterns updates to register the new information we learned. Eventually, we come to the point where we then utilize these patterns to comprehend the world around us. So while true love in childhood fairytales might be decided by the fit of a glass slipper, as we grow and try to find love for ourselves, we learn that love is so much more complicated than Prince Charming coming to the rescue.

You’re All Grown Up Now

So far we have seen how stories engage with our brains in childhood, generating the basis for what we know about the human experience. Perhaps surprisingly, though, stories remain useful to us well into adulthood – they are significantly helpful in developing an understanding of our adult selves and our lives. Adult educator Marsha Rossiter posits that as humans, we understand our own lives in narratives, whether that be one large, continuous story or narrative episodes [9]. Narratives are particularly useful here because they allow us to ascribe meaning to our experiences [9, 10]. The stories we once read as children follow clear plotlines that teach easily-understood morals, like the familiar story of a little boy lying repeatedly about seeing a wolf and then being unable to get help when he really needed it, an illustration of the importance of telling the truth. Therefore, thinking of our own lives as a series of connected events allows us to extrapolate meaning from them compared to if we processed them disjointedly.

American psychologist Jerome Bruner offers more insight into this phenomenon. Bruner explains that stories activate a double landscape of narration: a landscape of action and a landscape of consciousness [11]. The “landscape of action” is the dimension of the story where its own events happen: the protagonist leaves home, the happy couple has a major argument, the guy gets the girl—typical plot events. But the “landscape of consciousness” is the space where the character’s world comes into play: the protagonist feels smothered at home and wants to discover themself, the couple argues because they want to resolve problems. This landscape gives us as readers a chance to interact more deeply with the story through the characters’ thoughts, beliefs, and motivations [11]. Stories resemble simulations that give the audience direct access to things they wouldn’t be able to observe otherwise, such as the mental states and feelings of others [12]. Through these simulations, readers are able to understand and eventually predict complex social relationships in the real world. Dialogues, conflicts, and resolutions between characters give us insight into their behaviors. They enable us to take on their perspective and eventually help us develop a sense of empathy for and connection to them as if we were experiencing their strife ourselves [9, 13].

Much of the neurological breakdown of stories is based in a network centered around the prefrontal cortex – a brain region responsible for regulating most of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors [14]. The prefrontal cortex is also where we process what is happening in our surroundings and compare it to previous experiences [15]. A study using BOLD fMRI, a brain imaging technique that measures blood oxygenation levels in the brain as a proxy for activity levels in certain regions, found that this area of the brain is activated not only when someone is listening to a story but also when they are telling one [16].

Activation in the prefrontal cortex is associated with Theory of Mind (ToM), or the process and ability to predict, explain, and describe behavior by assigning mental states to oneself and others [17]. ToM here occurs in two different ways. Listeners activate this network when they position themselves to make inferences about a character’s motives, emotions, and behaviors as well as the goals of the storyteller [16]. For the storyteller, the inferences made are less about the story itself since they already know its content and more about how their audience perceives the story [14]. Regardless of the actual story, we neurologically decipher relationships between characters, their environment, and our own connection to them in similar ways.

In addition to developing ToM to grasp and apply broader themes from stories, storytelling also uses the mirror neuron system to enhance narrative salience. This system is activated when observing an action and performing it [18]. These neurons link the frontal and parietal lobes to the temporal lobe, forming a brain circuit [19]. The temporal lobe contains neurons that catalog the visual information of an action – how it looks as it’s performed. This information is then processed and sent to the parietal mirror neurons to determine the physical aspects of the observed action. The frontal mirror neurons then code the information sent to translate the goal of the action. Overall, this sequence creates a link between the visuals of an observed action and its physical execution, enabling imitation [19]. A similar process unfolds when we experience a story. This is particularly true for visual stories, though auditory stories can also activate mirror neurons, as hearing about an action can evoke a memory of it [20]. Stories provide the same observational information as experiencing or viewing an action firsthand [21, 22]. Due to this similarity, the impact that stories have mirrors that of real-life experiences.

As adults, the stories we grew up hearing and the new ones we write ourselves all aid us in enhancing our own social cognitive abilities. We better understand how others think and subsequently relate to them better, building our own relationships using knowledge from stories. This setup is not only advantageous for us to communicate better person-to-person, but can be engineered for others to take advantage of as well.

The Mind Manipulated

The cognitive influence of stories opens up several avenues for them to be applied to new contexts and across multiple disciplines. For example, educators have begun using a technique known as “narrative science storytelling” where one takes advantage of the brain’s existing affinity to the structure of stories to make science more accessible and engaging [23]. Scientists are being encouraged to leverage the emotional reaction that stories create to help generate more interest in scientific discoveries in a larger audience through the use of characters, drama, description, and a slew of other literary techniques [23]. Studies show that adding personal narratives about the struggles of famous scientists when presenting research led to a greater interest in science materials in a population of high school students [23, 24]. Students who struggled academically benefited the most from these narratives. Science felt more accessible and relatable, particularly for those who may doubt how their own capabilities measured against the expectations of STEM fields [23, 24]. By fitting scientific findings into the narrative structures of stories, researchers are able to break down complicated and often abstract information so that it can be understood and shared more widely.

The benefits of narrative science are also exemplified by narrative medicine. Although there is no generally accepted definition for this type of medicine, physician Rita Charon emphasizes that it lets medical practitioners “recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness” [25]. Using stories as an entry point, narrative-based medicine aims to make use of the storytelling structures we grew up with to make treatment more effective. Patients are urged to tell their own stories about their illnesses, humanizing them and helping them feel less like a burden [25]. This also allows doctors to add their own stories and further create a space that is both holistic and patient-centered, improving overall diagnoses and patient experiences [25, 26]. When applied to patients going through brain cancer treatments, researchers found that participants who underwent narrative medicine practices were able to renegotiate their identities and felt they were better able to acclimate to their new circumstances without losing their sense of self [27].

In other industries, however, the incorporation of storytelling may do more harm than good. In marketing, the rise of social media has led to the emergence of a new genre of advertising known as “narrative advertising” – deceptive ads designed to fit right into your social media feed [28]. Because these are not explicitly advertisements and are smoothly integrated alongside non-promoted content, companies can take advantage of storytelling to push their products and opinions. On apps like Instagram and TikTok, it is common to see content creators who make a living off their relatability and talking about their experiences with services, products, and businesses – however, these accounts are not always genuinely motivated since creators are able to receive commissions from the products they sell. When these ads are mixed into viewers’ regular content feed, they may not seem financially motivated or like an advertisement at all. At first glance, videos explaining how a creator may have struggled with an issue all their life and finally found a product that worked may seem legitimate until the “commission paid” sign at the bottom calls the integrity of their narrative into question.

However, this frequently goes unnoticed. The lack of required disclosure and ease of hiding financial motives creates an environment where creators and advertisers alike are able to exploit human sensitivity to stories and turn empathy into profit [28].

Stories have always had the ability to elicit emotional reactions. We laugh when a cop slips on a banana peel, cry when someone loses a loved one, become scared when a predator catches up to its prey, and empathize with a victim of bullying who finally speaks up. But too often we limit stories to just that: forms of entertainment and a source of nostalgic memories. In reality, though, stories are much more. In the earliest, most pivotal stages of our lives, stories shape the way we understand the world around us. Stories most definitely have the potential to shape how we interpret our surroundings and are actively doing so, right now! The way you look at the world and the connections you make between what you see and know are influenced by the frameworks established from the stories you’ve grown up with and continue to hear. Old stories make up the basic structure of our world-viewing lens, while new stories update this lens as we grow older and the world around us changes. While some uses of stories lend themselves to negative outcomes, their many positive applications are hard to ignore. Stories may be filled with kingdom-conquering fae, underdog uprisings, and billionaire mafia bosses, but are undeniably so much more. Stories are full of life – and life is simply a collection of stories. The difference? In life, you get to tell your own story.


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