Nothing’s less innocent than a great story.
The neuroscience of brand storytelling.
As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated by the way stories affect humans. But since studying psychology, I now know why it happens. And that has completely changed the way I approach copywriting for business.
The news that good stories are persuasive is nothing revolutionary. Anyone who’s read the Greek myths, the Brothers Grimm or Aesop’s tales can tell you how a moral embedded in a strong story can change the way you think.
Stories are the main vehicle of memes – viral thoughts that capture our imaginations and spread like wildfire from brain to brain. That’s because our minds are primarily story processors not logic processors; nature has shaped us as social animals and therefore particularly attentive to character and plot.
Only a short while ago, major religious (the Bible or the Koran, for example) or political texts (the Declaration of Independence) were the poster children for memes – they all marked specific ideas that changed the way humans think.
Now a web search for the greatest memes of all time yields Grumpy Cat and Rickrolling. Which just goes to show how addicted to memes – any meme – we are.
But why are stories so persuasive?
What happens when you hear a story: the neuroscience in a nutshell.
We’re actually physiologically adapted to interact with stories more readily. As neuroscientist, Antonia Damasio declares in his book, Descartes’ Error, “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.”
Damasio posited a theory called the “somatic marker.” Every moment of every day, your brain stamps an emotion onto everything you experience, which in turn makes it more likely your hippocampus will lay down a strong memory of the event. And that helps you make future decisions about what to do when you meet a similar situation again.
Rock me, amygdala.
Imagine you’re out walking in the wilderness. You suddenly see something out of the corner of your eye – a snake! You freeze. Your heart skips a beat. Your amygdala, the fight or flight emotion centre of your brain, goes to red alert.
You sneak another look. It’s not a snake. It’s a stick. That’s your ventromedial prefrontal cortex kicking in to mitigate the amygdala’s panic. At this point your brain will also stamp the moment with a somatic marker so you won’t go to mattresses so quickly in the future.
Your amygdala is particularly powerful when you’re young, according to Breyer and Winters (2005), and is responsible for two behavioural effects in adolescents – “a tendency to react explosively to situations” and a propensity to “misread neutral or inquisitive facial expressions of others as a sign of anger.”
In fact, your prefrontal cortex (the bit of the brain behind your forehead) is one of the last areas to mature – until you’re 25, your amygdala is free to hijack your brain. Or, in other words, you’re all snake and no stick.
What’s this got to do with stories or copywriting?
During your formative years, your brain runs on emotion. You learn to use emotion far more readily than logic to make decisions about who you are, what you do and what you’ll do in the future.
And that makes stories appealing to your emotions super-powerful for the rest of your life – a fact that’s crucial when it comes to creating your brand story.
Find out why are some brand stories more compelling in Part 2.