Tell Don’t Show? What Brain Imaging Reveals About Readers - International Burch University
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Tell Don’t Show? What Brain Imaging Reveals About Readers

Years ago, I was asked by a local aquarium how they could use story to persuade their readers to become better stewards of the earth.

“Okay,” I said, “what’s your call to action? What do you want your readers to do when they leave the aquarium?”

The bearded man who headed the education department leaned forward, looked me earnestly in the eye, and said, “Our goal is to have our patrons go home and think deeply about the issues.”

That’s when I knew they were in trouble.

Think deeply? About what, exactly? Why? To what end? That sounds like work. Unpaid work, at that. It takes energy, focus, commitment, desire, and . . . hey, what’s for dinner?

This is precisely why story doesn’t ask us to think: thinking is a choice, and with so many genuinely important things vying for our attention this very minute, who has the time? Plus, what the hell does a steward do, anyway?

The purpose of an effective story—the story you’ll create—is to change how your audience sees things, to spur them to do something right now. That is what makes all stories a call to action, because once we see things differently, we do things differently. That’s why your goal isn’t to create a story to show your audience how great your idea, brand, or cause is—regardless of how utterly, completely true that is. I’m sure the newly redesigned LaGuardia Airport is, ahem, utterly captivating by now. That future fact didn’t matter to me even a teeny tiny bit back when I was on that slow shuttle bus, trying desperately to figure out how to salvage the meeting all those renovations were forcing me to miss.We’re not hooked by what the protagonist is doing; we’re on the hunt for why they’re doing it.

Instead, your goal is to create a story that will help your audience see how your idea benefits them in the moment, given who they are, and how they see themselves. To do that, first we have to upend much of what we’ve been taught about story itself and then redefine it.

But first, let’s tackle one of the things that may be holding you back: your tacit notion of what, exactly, a story is.

Okay, pop quiz: right now, if you had to define what a story is, what would you say? At first it can seem blazingly obvious, but when it comes to actually putting it into words, it’s like what St. Augustine said about time, “You know what it is until someone asks you to define it.”

We all innately know a story when we see one, thanks to the biological effect story has on us. A story instantly grabs our attention and yanks us into its world, no questions asked, substituting its reality for ours, and we are there. The story has commandeered our brain, and it feels so good, so deliciously urgent, that we remain blissfully unaware of the power it then has over us. This probably accounts for the fact that, when we try to sum up what constitutes a story and the real reason why it has us in thrall, even the most brilliant among us tend to fall woefully short.

Aristotle gave it a shot, declaring—wrongly, as it turns out—that the events come first when creating story, which he went on to describe as consisting of: “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” It’s a notion so revered that it’s currently taught from kindergarten up. But think about it: what besides Zeno’s paradox and Uncle Joe’s long, rambling remembrances at Thanksgiving doesn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end? And how on earth does that help you create a story, anyway?

The dictionary definition of story is equally unhelpful and misleading: “A story is about something dramatic that happens, an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.” The problem with that notion is threefold: it’s vague, it defines story as solely for “entertainment,” and the one thing it emphasizes—“something dramatic that happens”—focuses on what a story is not about: the external events.

Unfortunately, most of us have been taught to think of a story in exactly that way: as being about something external that happens. That is what Aristotle, and the writing world, call “the plot.”

It feels so true that it’s easy to see why even Aristotle was fooled. After all, the plot is what’s visible. When we’re lost in a story, it’s natural to assume that this is what has grabbed us, and therefore it’s what we need to focus on when creating a story, whether it’s part of an ad, a mission statement, or a pitch letter.

It isn’t.

In the decades I’ve spent working with writers, diving deep into what makes story work, the realization that surprised me most was this: What grabs us, what pulls us in and makes us care are not the external events, regardless how overtly dramatic. An earthquake, a tsunami, an asteroid obliterating all of downtown Akron can be so startlingly boring that you start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you. (There isn’t.) Because what makes those situations riveting is the internal effect they’re having on someone we care about. Without that, they’re just random facts, regardless how objectively “dramatic.”

Here’s the secret: As counterintuitive as it may seem, a story isn’t about what happens in the world. A story is about what happens in the mind of the protagonist—the person through whose eyes we’re experiencing those events.

That realization was a game changer for me. It meant that we’d had it backward.

Which brings us to the question: okay then, what is a story?

A story is about how an unavoidable external problem forces the protagonist to change internally in order to solve it.

A story isn’t about how someone solves a problem. It’s about how the problem causes someone to realize something, internally—something that has been preventing them from solving said problem. It is that inner struggle that has us riveted, not the bombs bursting in air.

And the realization that the protagonist’s inner struggle leads to is what answers the question your audience is always tacitly asking: “Why does this matter to me?”


That is not to say that the plot doesn’t matter. It does. But contrary to popular belief, external events are not what your audience is focusing on. Brain imaging studies reveal that when it comes to story—whether it’s encapsulated by a news headline, a picture, a donor letter, an ad, or a novel—our brain is on the lookout for something else altogether. According to neuroscientist Steven Brown, who runs the NeuroArts Lab at McMaster University, “Our brain results show that people approach narrative in a strongly character-centered and psychological manner, focused on the mental states of the protagonist of the story.”

We’re not talking about long fictional stories. Brown’s study didn’t monitor the brains of people leisurely reading a novel or munching on popcorn while watching a movie. Rather, study subjects read short factual headlines, such as “Surgeon Finds Scissors Inside of Patient” or “Fisherman Rescues Boy from Freezing Lake” to see what areas of their brain would activate as they made sense of it—that is, as their brain did what brains naturally do: translate the headlines into a narrative. The result? The second the subjects saw the headline, what sprang into action in their brain were the “components of the classic mentalizing network involved in making inferences about the beliefs, desires, and emotions of other people as well as oneself.”

According to Brown, when we’re grabbed by a story, we’re instantly making inferences about the protagonist’s beliefs in order to pinpoint their intentions and what is motivating their actions. We’re not hooked by what the protagonist is doing; we’re on the hunt for why they’re doing it.Each of us has a story that we live by, but as we know, for the most part we are not aware of it.

Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees. “One of the biggest contributions of brain imaging is to reveal how intensely social and emotional the human brain is. To me it was a very big surprise. Ask people to read some innocuous little narrative, and the brain activity shows that they’re computing things like the character’s intention and motivation. I think there is a constant tendency to be processing social and emotional information. It’s there, and it’s ubiquitous.”

The same thing is true when we encounter people out here in real life, including our audience—the people whose minds we want to change. Because if we understand why someone is doing what they’re doing, not only can we anticipate what they might do next, but we can ferret out what might be keeping them from hearing our call to action in the first place.

The question is: what part of their story is keeping them from hearing ours?


It’s easy to assume that all that matters is that your brand, idea, or cause is relevant to your audience’s life. Climate change might leave them underwater, literally; that new toothpaste really will make their teeth blindingly bright; who doesn’t want takeout food delivered hot, fresh, and with a smile? But if that were enough, you wouldn’t need a story—you could just give them the facts, and they’d do what you think they should on their own. We all know how well that works.

It’s not just that what you’re advocating has to be relevant to their lives, it must be relevant to their story, which is a very different thing. Often something can be 100 percent relevant to our lives, but we still wholeheartedly reject it. For instance, I lay awake at night worrying about how to save the planet—you know, conceptually. But when I read an article about how eating mealworms is nutritious, delicious, and planet-saving, did I go right out and buy a can of mealworm stew? Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

The point is, each of us has a story that we live by, but as we know, for the most part we are not aware of it, the same way David Foster Wallace’s young fish had no idea what water was. If pushed, we tend to think of our story as a summary of everything that’s happened to us: where we were born, who our parents were, where we went to school, that year the mean kid took our Twinkies every day at lunch (serves him right, considering they turned out to be poison), and the scraggly dog who always followed us home until Mom let us keep her. But those are just the facts, ma’am, not a story.

Our story takes those same events and goes a layer deeper. Because as we’ve discussed, it is what those experiences taught us about survival, especially social survival, that is automatically programmed into our decoder ring. That is our story. Every minute of every day, behind the scenes, our self-narrative is deftly guiding our every decision based on what we gleaned, applying it to what’s happening now, and suggesting what we should (probably) do next.


Department of English Language and Literature