Humans are hard-wired to tell stories. We’re all literary artists in one way or another, using our individual linguistic capabilities to weave interesting stories about our lives – in an attempt to place more significance on who we are as people. Storytelling is perhaps the simplest and most engaging form of “imaginative activity”, holding the power to incite the deepest of human emotions.
Science on the other hand, is one of the most powerful tools that has the ability to change the way humans think and the decisions they take for themselves and their societies. Science holds the power to heal. Consequently, scientific knowledge is becoming increasingly important with each passing day and how scientists convey what they learn has the potential to have profound effects on humanity as a whole.
The scientific knowledge that we gather every day has to be able to inspire action, especially by our leaders and people who govern us. And this need to inspire action based on hard facts and figures obtained in research can only be ignited by the activity humans have participated in for generations: storytelling. According to Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, by crafting a story that we are passionate to tell because it serves a real purpose, our stories will have a bigger impact on the world. And there are very few things in this world that are as passionate as scientists giddy from successful results they want to share. However, even in the presence of fervent passion for one’s research, proper scientific storytelling would only be effective when scientists want to convey complex information with not the motive to just throw out everything they know, but the desire to provoke thoughts and to inform the audience with an outward focus.
Scientific storytelling could transfer a lot of valuable information and telling a story out of scientific research isn’t all that remote and difficult as one would normally imagine. Every discovery and every research that was ever born had a story to tell. Humans are also constantly stitching narratives in their head – about how their favourite shirt didn’t fit, how the tomatoes at the supermarket were all rotten and how the glimmer in their lover’s eyes made their day – in fact so much, that almost 65% of all our conversations are personal anecdotes and gossip.
Research shows that although our brains are not constructed to retain facts and figures for a long time, they are incredibly good at perceiving, understanding and remembering stories. Our brains involve themselves when telling or listening to a story – more than one sensory region is activated during a storytelling activity. Storytelling stirs a significant number of emotions and plays with human psychology, thereby engaging more audience. Storytelling is also the only thing that works in order to affect a change in belief and behaviour in the masses. Together, Science and Storytelling are almost like a power couple. An amalgamation of narrative and research data could stimulate the audience not only emotionally, but also intellectually. Subsequently, such a stimulation would allow the story to stay with its listeners for days.
Storytelling has proven to be effective in marketing and large businesses, giving us no reason to believe that it would not work in science. In a 2014 paper, Roald Hoffman, Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters (emeritus) at Cornell University, wrote that because narrative is not reducible to mathematics, it is not given its due in [our] scientific world…but science does depend on compelling narratives and that science has stories to tell.
Perhaps the quantification of scientific ideas as well the idea that science needs to be ‘dumbed down’ for it to be communicated has vanquished the prose in science. But it is never too late to reinforce the importance of narratives that is found in science. Humans are already manufactured to tell stories and so, all that remains to be done is to spur a willingness to write and narrate a story from what scientists learn. Storytelling has a considerable scientific component; conversely, embracing scientific storytelling could only prove to be the most effective form of science communication.
Featured Photograph (on homepage) by: Anusha Das