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Your Brain on Story: The Power of Story as a Teaching Tool for 21st Century Minds

​By Robin Moore

The American Poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote:

"The Universe is made of stories, not atoms."

I have always known, on some deep and intuitive level, that humans make sense of the world by telling stories. But I could not prove it. Then I stumbled across the research of Kendall Haven, an internationally-recognized expert on story structure. Working under the auspices of the Narrative Network Project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, Haven and other researchers have used the term "narrative intelligence" to describe the innate human ability to organize raw experience into the form of story. Current cognitive research highlights this process as the primary means by which humans understand the world around them and create meaning for themselves and others.

Haven and his team conducted cognitive science experiments investigating how to best create effective story structure for the purposes of education, communication and organizational leadership. In addition, he was the curator of more than 1,000 studies from 16 different disciplines which focused on the effectiveness of story in a variety of real-world situations. His findings are detailed in two books: Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story and Story Smart: Using the Science of Story to Persuade, Influence, Inspire and Teach.

Haven explains: "Extensive cognitive research has shown that human brains are literally hard-wired to make sense, to think, to understand and to remember in specific story terms and elements. Your hard-wired Neural Story Net (NSN) is responsible for turning incoming information and experiences into story terms in order to make it make sense. The NSN lies between your sensory organs (eyes and ears) and your conscious brain. Your turn everything into story form before you pass it to your conscious brain and memory. What reaches your brain is your personalized storied version of what your sensory organs recorded. Research confirms that if you use effective story structure in your communications, your information reaches the listener's conscious mind and memory vividly and accurately. Nothing reaches your conscious mind and memory without first being massaged into story form by your NSN."

Kendall asks: Why are stories so powerful, alluring and engaging? His answer: Because they provide information, emotion, context and meaning, all in one compact package. This is why stories anchor our beliefs. If you have prior knowledge (right or wrong) saved in memory in story form, the only thing that compels you to change that belief is a replacement story which is more powerful, influential and effective than the original. Said in another way, if you have a deeply-entrenched story, the only thing that changes your story is a better story.

This is why modern-day storytellers must hold themselves to a higher standard than we ever have before. In an era when the social, cultural and ecological fabric of our world is in danger of tearing apart, it is no longer sufficient for us to be entertaining storytellers. Instead, we must challenge ourselves to go beyond storytelling and envision ourselves as story practitioners—using story as a force for positive influence in every sphere of contemporary life.

I have coined the term "story practitioner" to describe the new approach that TGI is offering in the emerging field of Applied Storytelling. This shift from performance to service makes an enormous difference because it takes the essential teachings of the Oral Traditions Program that we have run for 16 years and places it in a real-world context, giving colleagues an opportunity to take the ancient art of storytelling out into society, celebrating the power of the spoken word in education, leadership, community-building and the creative arts.

Our new Applied Storytelling Certificate Program is designed to provide verbal artists with the breadth, depth and application of narrative intelligence and then turn them loose on a world hungry for positive, life-affirming stories. For those who wish to continue on into the second year of the program, the MA in Writing and Oral Traditions offers educators and other professionals a state-approved pathway to professional development.

I have always been inspired by these words from Jungian Psychologist James Hillman:

"I have tried to show in my work how adult and child have come to be set against each other: Childhood tends to mean wonder, imagination, creative spontaneity, while adulthood tends to mean the loss of these perspectives. So the first task, as I see it, is to re-story the adult—the teacher, the parent and the grandparent—in order to restore the imagination to the primary place in consciousness in each of us, regardless of age."

This restoring and re-storying of the imagination is what the study of Applied Storytelling is all about.The Graduate Institute is at the forefront of this bold and audacious effort. We find ourselves on the cusp of a great adventure.

As Muriel Rukeyser reminds us, our world is made of stories. Story provides the pathways for creating a new world. We create as we speak!

The Master's Program in Writing and Oral Traditions offers teachers a comprehensive approach to the language arts, encompassing the essential skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening by combining cutting-edge research in narrative intelligence with age-old wisdom about the power of story as a tool for learning, thinking and personal transformation.

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