The Relationship Between Storytelling and Improved Learning

Storytelling is a rich tradition amongst human populations that has served to support societal structure and individual survival for thousands of years. Neurologically, stories are absorbed more readily than non-stories due to a variety of chemical and biological triggers; it has thus become an essential method of cognitive learning for humans. Stories as old as 10,000 years continue to exist in the world, illuminating our past and giving us empathic connection to prehistoric times. Some learning styles, such as auditory learners, derive additional benefits when hearing stories by interpreting tone and inflection. Full details are provided below.

Research or Reputable Articles Affirming the Importance of Storytelling

  • Creating a visual internal story has been demonstrated to be a powerful memorization technique due to the way the brain associates objects, people, and places. The ancient Greek Simonides pioneered this memorization technique (called “loci”) and researchers have found that using it increased the rate of recall of 72 words from a base of 26 words to 71 after training. “You really walk through a place and then later you visualise the location to place an object there,” said researcher Boris Konrad of the method.
  • Stories are more likely to be accepted by the brain than straight information, according to a research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000. This is due to the transportative power of stories, which equates to a feeling of “being lost in a story”. Some individuals have a higher propensity for being transported by a story, which makes them more likely to belief it.
  • Stories are not only one way to learn, they are a primary way to learn, according to Harvard Business Review. “… A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience,” writes Leo Widrich, incorporating data from Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson.
  • Neurologically, hearing a story activates the language processing areas of the brain (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) while also stimulating “any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story,” according to storytelling expert Leo Widrich. It provides an experience without necessitating direct experience, thus facilitating learning.
  • Chemically speaking, neurochemicals play a role in story absorption and the resultant learning retention. When we’re told a story, the brain releases cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin to help us formulate memories, stay engaged, and create connections with the people in the story.
  • Oxytocin is the chemical that promotes empathy in the brain. Stories that have greater dramatic arcs (rather than flat narratives) are more likely to prompt emotional engagement, connection, and potential action based on what was absorbed during the story, according to a 2015 study.
  • On the cognitive front and sociological front, stories are the central way we make sense of the world and our place in it. “Through story listening, we gain new perspectives and a better understanding of the world around us. We challenge and expand our own understanding by exploring how others see and understand the world through their lens,” writes Dr. Lani Peterson.
  • A study from 2017 published in Educational Media International found that students presented with a narrative of how natural selection works had a better understanding of the process than students who were only given a textbook to learn with.
  • When facts are imparted in a story, they are remembered “far longer” and “more accurately” than when they are given in a non-story format, per researcher and psychologist Peg Neuhaser.

Storytelling and Indigenous Peoples

  • JSTOR Daily posted an article about the ability of pre-literate humans to memorize incredibly long epic poems, such as the Odyssey. At one point, recitations of such length were thought impossible by scholars. In the 1930s, however, Milman Parry traveled to Bosnia to record pre-literate bards reciting epske pjesme (epic oral songs) to demonstrate how humans have the ability to recall extremely long stories over hours at a time.
  • Milman Parry’s “Oral Theory” about the ability of epic story recall has been applied to “more than 150 different oral traditions from six of the seven continents and from ancient times through the modern day,” per oral communication scholar John Miles Foley.
  • First Nations peoples in Canada utilize the invaluable ability of oral tradition through stories that teach practical skills (including knowing what flora and fauna to hunt or harvest) vital for the survival of the tribe, according to a document from the Government of Alberta.
  • Aboriginal societies around the world utilize oral traditions out of necessity for cultural preservation, per scholars Renée Hulan and Renate Eigenbrod. “Oral traditions form the foundation of Aboriginal societies, connecting speaker and listener in communal experience and uniting past and present in memory.”
  • The Tjapwurung of Australia possess one of the oldest stories in the world, told and retold across generations. It is a hunting story of giant birds 7 feet tall; it is estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 years old based on comparing geological records and descriptions of volcanic eruptions in the story.
  • The Klamath people of Oregon possess another ancient story, this time recalling the eruption of Mount Mazama, which became today’s Crater Lake. The Klamath people have taught generations of their children to avoid the lake due to the potential danger it could represent if the evil god within became angry again. This story is 7,600 years old.
  • Cultural isolation lends to the endurance of how long oral stories are kept, writes Patrick D. Nunn for Anthropology Magazine. He estimates that, due to cultural intermixing that reduces the number of dedicated storytellers and increases outside influences, oral stories don’t endure beyond 10,000 years.
  • Stories are also used in indigenous societies as a means of maintaining societal structure. “Stories are also told more formally, in ceremonies such as potlatches, to validate a person’s or family’s authority, responsibilities, or prestige,” writes Erin Hansen for the University of British Columbia.
  • Oral stories are not recited word-for-word among indigenous peoples, but have the same basic structure from one telling to the next. In other words, it is the story that is important, not the exact wording. The individual listener incorporates their own understanding and other relevant details to the retelling when it is their turn to tell it — with a goal of making it as impactful as possible to the listeners hearing it.

Auditory Learners

  • 40 percent of any given group are likely to be auditory learners, shares Vanessa Boris in a Harvard Business Review article. Auditory learners learn best when listening to discussions or lectures.
  • Auditory learners focus closely on word selection and meaning when listening to a story, along with the sound of the storyteller’s voice.
  • Among the abilities that auditory learners have when listening to stories is to interpret emotion in the tone of voice used by the storyteller, per Professor Jennifer Wiechel of Michigan State University. Other types of learners may miss the emotional cues that auditory learners interpret, meaning auditory learners have a higher potential for empathic connection based on voice tone and inflection.
  • If an auditory learner reads written material aloud, they are generally able to absorb it better. For auditory learners, oral stories (or multimedia with audio) are the best option for easy learning.
  • Hearing information or a story as a rhyming poem, song, or jingle improves the rate of absorption, learning, and memorization for auditory learners.
  • A literature review of indigenous peoples and learning styles found that, generally speaking, Native Americans exhibit an observational learning style in their approach rather than an auditory one. This indicates that oral stories among indigenous populations are effective not because they are told orally, but because they relate to the direct world around the listener.
  • Learning styles can change over the course of an individual’s lifetime, meaning someone can prefer visual learning in their youth and adapt to preferring auditory learning by their college years. Whatever their innate preference at any given time will always be the best method of learning for that individual, per Rita Dunn in How to Implement and Supervise a Learning Style Program.
  • A countering article published in Scientific American challenges the theory that teaching or learning based on learning styles is more effective in increasing absorption rates. The article describes a study that found that students that actively applied learning strategies that cater to their own learning style did not do any better in either the lab or lecture components of a course. Rate of absorption for any particular individual hearing a story may therefore be more dependent on other circumstances (such as distractions, emotional level, quality of sleep, etc.).
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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