Understanding How Your Brain Works Allows You To Tell Better Stories

Let me take you for a journey. We’ll examine three scientific discoveries that will help you understand how your brain is interpreting stories. We’ll talk about movies, apes and… amputated limbs. Believe me, in the end you will become a better storyteller.

Why do we get emotional at the movies?

Christian Keysers edits his Wikipedia page on his own. Forty-year-old neuropsychologist is the author of the book titled The Empathic Brain — in which he describes his research on contagious emotions. The book won The Independent Publishers Award in 2012. Here’s how Keysers defines the scope of his research: “While we watch a movie, we share the experiences of the actors we observe: our heart for instance starts beating faster while we see an actor slip from the roof of a tall building. Why? Specific brain areas are involved when we perform certain actions or have certain emotions or sensations.

Christian Keysers

Christian Keysers,

Interestingly, some of these areas are also recruited when we simply observe someone else performing similar actions, having similar sensations or having similar emotions. These areas called ‘shared circuits’ transform what we see into what we would have done or felt in the same situation. With such brain areas, understanding other people is not an effort of explicit thought but becomes an intuitive sharing of their emotions, sensations and actions.”

In one of the experiments that led Keysers to such conclusions he analyzed the feeling of disgust. He gave rotten eggs (or chemical substances with a similar scent) for the people to smell. Then he recorded (using functional magnetic resonance) which regions of the brain activate when we experience a real disgust. There were also cameras that recorded facial expressions of the people who smelled all this ugly stuff. Keyser then showed this movie to another group of people, also hooked to FMRI. What did he discover? The mere watching of the facial expression is enough to trigger the regions of the brain responsible for the feeling of disgust. The imitated reaction is nearly identical to the real thing. That’s why we like to watch “talking heads” on television. We read faces for emotional clues and “feel” the story. If you want to be a better storyteller, let your face be read.

What happens when an ape is eating an apple?

But it’s not Keysers who gets the credit for discovering those — as he calls them — common circuits. One of the most important discoveries in neuropsychology was, as it often happens, in post part an accident.

Prof. Giacomo Rizzolatti

Giacomo Rizzolatti, professor of Human Phisiology at Parma Univerity. © marco garofalo/LUZphoto

At the end of 1980s a team of scientists at the University of Parma conducted a research on a region of a brain called F5, a motion center in apes. Even more precisely: they were not researching all the motions that the brain commands, just checking which neurons are responsible for eye-mouth coordination. Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team experimented on macaques — they inserted electrodes into apes’ brains which allowed them to pinpoint (with the accuracy of a single neuron) the active and inactive regions. The researchers tried to establish the relation between what the ape sees and what it intends to do. So they placed different sized object in front of the macaques, for instance apples and peanuts. In order for the hand to be able to grab a certain object, the brain had to assess what it sees and how it should go about grabbing it — you use just two fingers to grab a peanut, and the entire hand to grab an apple.

Something interesting happened during observation. The neurons responsible for grabbing an apple activated not only in the ape that was currently examined — they were also lighting up in the one that was merely watching the process of grabbing. The experience was not as intense as with the first ape, only about 10% of neurons fired in the one that was watching, but they were exactly the same neurons responsible for actually performing the action. So: if a macaque observed picking up a peanut, his brain fired neurons responsible for picking up peanuts. If it observed grabbing an apple, electrodes showed activity in apple-grabbing region.

Rizzolatti and his people were not sure what exactly they stumbled upon. They were not even sure if it’s not some kind of glitch in equipment — the second macaque could be making some small gestures that were registered on the electrodes but were missed by the scientists. So they continued their own research, just recording additional information. After a couple of years they were certain: they wrote a scientific paper and submitted it to a prestigious Nature where… it was turned down. “General lack of interest in the subject” wrote editors of Nature about one of the most quoted papers in neurobiology. Luckily they were not the only ones, in 1992 the paper was published by Experimental Brain Research. Four years later, in the paper published by Brain the scientists named their discovery mirror neurons.

Rizzolatti and his team established in their preliminary research that there are different categories of mirror neurons assigned to different kinds of stimuli. Macaques reacted to visual stimuli — they observed a hand that grabbed an apple. But they also reacted to sound stimuli: the researchers checked which neurons are activated when the ape tears a piece of paper. Then they told it not only to watch the other tear a piece of paper, but also to listen to sounds of torn paper. In each case mirror neurons had no problem identifying situation and reacted accordingly.

How do you scratch an amputated leg?

Vilyanur S. Ramachadran

Vilyanur S. Ramachadran

Christian Keysers, the one we started our journey with, discovered mirror neurons responsible for touch — you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon. Your muscles stretch involuntarily when you see a person being tickled. But the scientist who took this problem even further was Vilyanur S. Ramachadran, an American neurologist. He posed the following question: if the very same neurons fire up when somebody touches me and when I observe someone being touched, how do I distinguish between the two? In other words: where’s the border between my experiences and empathy? And he was startled by the answer.

It turns out that empathy is skin-deep. Literally. The moment mirror neurons activate a region in your brain that says “somebody is touching my hand” the skin sends a signal saying “it’s not me!” It’s the combination of this “denial” and the intensity of the neuron stimuli (Rizzolatti discovered that only 10% of the neurons act as mirror neurons) is all that separates you from total unity with another being, from feeling his or her pain as your own. But “Rama” (as the professor is called at his university) went even further.

Do you know what a phantom limb is? The patients who got their body parts amputated often claim they can still feel that part in their brain. Because despite losing a leg or an arm, the region in their brain responsible for managing the limb remains. Yet something does change: this very part used to be fed sensory information, but the signals cease. And the neurons don’t like when nothing happens. So they fire up on their own from time to time. In case of sudden blindness you get hallucinations — people who lost their eyes say they regained their sight. What happens when a region of the brain responsible for a limb that’s no longer there activates on its own?

Phantom pains. Imagine a cramp in your leg. You know this kind of pain, right? You have to massage your hurting limb so the pain stops. But how do you massage a limb that does not exist? “Rama” found a way. All you need to do is show how you massage your own leg — the pain in the person watching you will be gone. Because he or she has no skin in that region, there is no “it’s not me!” signal, so the experience generated by mirror neurons are indistinguishable from the real thing. The border between “my pain” and “your pain” has vanished.

How can words evoke emotions?

Broca's Area

By Polygon data were generated by Database Center for Life Science(DBCLS)[2]. – Polygon data are from BodyParts3D[1], CC BY-SA 2.1 jp

Why are the mirror neurons so important when it comes to storytelling? Well, there’s one more thing you need to know. Do you remember the name of the brain region Rizzolatti and his colleagues researched? The motion center in macaque’s brain? It was called F5. Well, people don’t have it. In humans this region is called Broca’s area. And is responsible for processing speech. In the region brimming with mirror neurons we have a speech processing center. You can therefore use words to create images so real your imagination cannot resist them. That’s why emotions fired by well designed stories are almost indistinguishable from the real ones.

How does the knowledge of neuropsychology make you a better storyteller? Let’s take the categories of mirror neurons, do you remember them? Image, sound, movement and touch. We can stimulate all of them not only with traditional stimuli (using images, sounds, movement and touch), but words as well. Metaphors to be exact. Metaphor is one of the storyteller’s greatest weapons. If you can compare a fragment of your story to an image or a sound in your listeners’ heads, you will get much stronger emotional reaction. If a complicated phenomenon can be boiled down to a metaphor of movement — people will understand you better.

Do you want to be a better storyteller? Speak to mirror neurons.