Neuroscience & Story Telling {Part 1}

Neuroscience & Story Telling {Part 1}

I went on a writing course, and got waaaaaay more insight into our minds than I was expecting.

Understanding the role of story in our minds & culture provides a powerful tool, not just for writing, but for living…

Last week I treated myself to a fantastic 5 day intensive course with author, Will Storr on the topic of storytelling at Faber Academy in Bloomsbury.

I booked it quickly, the dates worked & I wanted to do a writing course.  But when I got there Will explained we would be looking at neuroscience…my heart leapt.  I didn’t remember reading that in the course outline (which I skimmed like an impatient dyslexic)…I couldn’t believe my luck!

It turns out, Will has a new book out, The Science of Story, it’s been getting rather nice reviews, he even did a TEDx Talk on it & and our course was based on it.  Nice.

In the book Will applies research from neuroscience to dig deeply into not only how incredibly powerful story is as a meaning-making device totally unique to the human species, but also how characters – at least well written ones! – are absolutely driven by the stories in their heads.

{In his book, and in the course Will proposes this very particular approach, and by no means believes it’s the only way to construct a story ~ it’s just a really freaking good one that works with what we know about the brain & story.}

I found it super compelling.

In a nut shell ~

He suggests a writer needs to fully understand the stories in the heads of their characters in order to make the character not only believable, but also the prime driver of the plot via their choices.  And not only the stories, but their origin and underpinning beliefs.

An engaging plot will plot against a specific internal story/belief of a character that is in need of a bit of revisiting & revision.  The encounter with challenges to their internal stories renders them confused or vulnerable or disoriented.  The character will be faced with choices and opportunities for growth via the plot.  They either adapt their story & replace it for another and in doing so change their behaviour (happy ending) or to double down on their story & choose not adapt (tragedy).

Is this sounding like real life to you yet?

And another thing…

As Will did research on how we create, absorb & perpetuate story he learned some interesting stuff about our brains and senses that demonstrated even more deeply how powerful a device story is in our lives, as well as how unreliable our senses are.

We’ve all heard….

“You’ve got to see it to believe it.”

Hmmmm….turns out….no.

The truth is closer to:
You have to believe it to see it.

Sensory info is not the HD resolution we think it is.

There’s heaps of data that shows how we only get fragments of info from our senses.  It’s blurry & undefined and then your brain essentially hallucinates your reality ~ all based on stuff it thinks it already knows & you believe.

Your brain fills in the blanks and it fills it in based on your beliefs, your stories.

That’s why paranoid people see reasons to be paranoid everywhere.  That’s why negative people see reasons to be negative in most moments.  That’s why two people standing side by side observing the same event will recall it differently.  That’s why families argue over what actually happened during a shared memory.  {There’s some really interesting data & experiments on this in Will’s book.}

Basically, unless we choose to or we are forced to…our stories, the ones that programme our experiences, are a loop…a loop that reinforces itself with every loop.

However, before this gets a bit dystopian…and as any good story teller will attest to…the magic and the drama is in the awakening of the character to their free will and the choices that follow.

We are gripped wondering what a character will do, what they will choose ~ and we always have been.

From the time of stories on cave walls to our favourite box sets…we want to know:

~ What does that character want and why?

~ Will they get it?

~ Who do they have to become to get what they want?

~ What is motivating them?

~ Why do they believe what they believe?

~ What is the backstory?

~ What will this story turn into if the character changes?

And this is ALL relevant to us
in our lives,
and within our stories.

I started asking myself about my own stories…
When was the last time you examined the stories in your head?  Maybe unpicked a belief that’s perhaps holding you back?

You may notice about 95% of people’s conversations is a type of loop, the story reinforcing the story.  People often explain their experiences in a manner that supports their internal stories.  Not often questioning why they think what they think…

We discussed in our course how observing people do day to day things of seemingly little consequence can reveal rather a lot of their character.  {enter “how you do anything is how you do everything” concept…}

Naturally, not all of our internal stories are unhelpful and I’m not suggesting we need to do hardcore analysis to provoke an existential crisis…just start with kind curiosity…

Some stories may serve you, some may not, some may have in the past, but have expired…just have a little peek from time to time especially if feel caught in a loop…

Here’s a cool exercise to open the mind a bit…
Maybe play it with someone for an interesting discussion.

Ask yourself:

How would an author write me?

What stories and beliefs are driving my behaviour?

What events in a plot could an author throw at me to challenge or revise my internal stories?

What choices might I make?

Then dig a little deeper…
During the course with Will we imagined how our character would answer a few key questions…

* Naturally, make this inquiry with the utmost of love and acceptance and compassion for exactly where you are.  We are doing life, we are human and learning!  It’s Ok if you discover something you would like to perhaps revise…that’s actually sort of the point of inquiry…so go gently with kind curiosity.

How would you answer:

~ The thing people most appreciate about me is….

~ In order to feel safe in a relationship I need….

~ The secret to happiness is….

~ The best thing about me is….

~ The best advice anyone ever gave me was…

~ The thing I really know/understand about the world is….

~ Something I hold sacred is….

~ The reason(s) I put off what I really want is…

~ My beliefs come from…

~ The experiences (or relationships) that shaped these beliefs are…

Just see what comes up….if you like journals, whip one out.

how do we change our stories?

We can totally change the stories in our heads.  But it takes time, awareness & practice.  Stories will be embedded, the loops running over and over again mean habits of thought get created, and where there’s habit there is a lack on conscious awarness.  So it’s easy to be in a situation where we aren’t consciously choosing the programming that is essentially “running” our lives, it just runs, and loops.

we can become more conscious of the stories, and we can adapt them.

This post is Part 1.
In Part 2 I go into how to change our stories…
Read Part 2 HERE.

I thought what Will taught us was a powerful perspective.

It holds space for understanding all sort of beliefs found within others.

It also holds space for transformation and the timeless & captivating drama of human choices.

What do you think?
Let me know in the comments below.

And if you would like compassionate support examining your stories, meditation is an incredible tool for transformative observation.

I can teach you how to do it, how to fit it into daily life and also support the process of examining your stories with a view to adapting them to better serve what you want out of daily life.

The programme to learn to meditate and do it daily is HERE.
And personalised programmes for change are HERE.

Here’s to you, your choices, and your courage to examine your stories with compassion & growth mindset.

Love & light,


Part 2 of Neuroscience & Storytelling: How to change the story

The Science of Story Telling by Will Storr

Faber Academy

The unexamined life is not worth living. ~ Socrates

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