God likes stories, and science agrees

God likes stories, and science agrees December 2, 2014

In The Bible Tells Me So, I have a section called “Stories Work,” which is my conclusion to chapter 3, “God Likes Stories.” The writers of the biblical narratives were storytellers. They recalled the past “often the very distant past, not ‘objectively,’ but purposefully. They had skin in the game. These were their stories. They wove narratives of the past to give meaning to their present–to persuade, motivate, and inspire.” (pp. 75-76)

Stories work. Stories are powerful. Stories move us deeply, more so than statistics, news reports, or textbooks. We all know that. We only need to think about what holds our attention and makes us long for more—that book, film, or TV series that we wish wouldn’t end quite so soon, that story told of some deep, personal, transforming experience, whether painful or joyous.

The Bible, then, is a grand story. It meets us and then invites us to follow and join a world outside of our own, and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process. Maybe that’s really the bottom line. The biblical story meets us where we are to disarm us and change how we look at ourselves—and God.

The Bible calls that change repentance. Maybe stories are where repentance can happen best. From what I can see, I think the Bible’s storytellers would agree. (129).

Today, a friend sent me a link to this article, “The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains.” It was nice to see someone coming at this from a scientific angle.

Here’s a snippet, but be sure to visit the site and read the whole article for yourself.

Our brain on stories: How our brains become more active when we tell stories

We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events?

It’s in fact quite simple. If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active:ForTheBibleTellsMeSo

“Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex. […] Then, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.”

A story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better:

When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”


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  • Science itself is a story, even a poem, that explains the universe.

    Science is the modern art of creating stories that explain observations of the natural world, and that could be useful for controlling or predicting nature.

    “Science is the poetry of reality.”

    • Science is the modern art of creating stories that explain observations of the natural world, and that could be useful for controlling or predicting nature.serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_cult…

      That “controlling or predicting” may be fine when it comes to non-minds, but when it comes to minds, it falls short. I suggest reading the three-page preface to Donald E. Polkinghorne’s Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences, or at least the following excerpts from Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look (1987):

          As long as there has been a social science, the expectation has been that it would turn from its humanistic infancy to the maturity of hard science, thereby leaving behind its dependence on value, judgment, and individual insight. The dream of modern Western man to be freed from his passions, his unconscious, his history, and his traditions through the liberating use of reason has been the deepest theme of contemporary social-scientific thought. Perhaps the deepest theme of the twentieth century, however, has been the shattering of the triumphalist view of history bequeathed to us by the nineteenth. What Comte saw as the inevitable achievement of man, positive reason, Weber saw as an iron cage. (2)

          The time seems ripe, even overdue, to announce that there is not going to be an age of paradigm in the social sciences. We contend that the failure to achieve paradigm takeoff is not merely the result of methodological immaturity, but reflects something fundamental about the human world. If we are correct, the crisis of social science concerns the nature of social investigation itself. The conception of the human sciences as somehow necessarily destined to follow the path of the modern investigation of nature is at the root of this crisis. Preoccupation with that ruling expectation is chronic in social science; that idée fixe has often driven investigators away from a serious concern with the human world into the sterility of purely formal argument and debate. As in development theory, one can only wait so long for the takeoff. The cargo-cult view of the “about to arrive science” just won’t do. (5)

      This is too bad for those who wish to declare the Bible to be ‘obsolete’, as if having MRI scanners and computers now makes it in any way obsolete. It is especially unfortunate for those who wish to control reality, other minds, and one’s own mind, without the kind of explicit discussion about ‘the good’ which you find all over the Bible.

  • Julie

    I wrote my thesis on narrative argumentative devices and how they were much more effective. It made the same point in many more pages and could now be sold as a sleep aid, if I would get off my rear and market it.

  • Anyone interested in really digging into this might like Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Two excerpts:

        Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories. The mental scope of story is magnified by projection—one story helps us make sense of another. The projection of one story onto another is parable, a basic cognitive principle that shows up everywhere, from simple actions like telling time to complex literary creations like Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. [In Search of Lost Time] (v)

        Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary. (4–5)

    Turner goes as far as to suggest that story preceded language:

        If we reject the hypothesis that genetic specialization for grammar was the origin of language, what can we propose instead? Let us consider the possibility that parable was the origin of language, that parable preceded grammar. (141)

  • Mark K

    Great stuff! I only have one question, Herr Doktor Professor Enns: Regarding TBTMS, how the heck do you make this stuff look so easy?

  • Lynn Betts

    I’m glad to see the article give some exposure to this exploration of language, from an fMRI perspective. And I don’t want to take away from the truths described here; certainly they should stand as important insights: narrative verbiage is better than didactic verbiage. Why? It captures the imagination better. And so our new tools show us that it “lights up certain parts of our brains.” So, we have some MORE evidences that our imagination/emotional dimension has more power than merely our logical dimension. It’s important to know this.

    /soapbox on/

    On the other hand…isn’t this a commonplace of pedagogical training? Whatever happened to the wisdom that we should engage as many of the student’s senses as possible if we want them to remember, and to change? Has this been forgotten? Never learned by Christian teachers?

    For example, the power that “doing” – “acting out” has: directed action is usually more able to capture the imagination – leading to remembering better, and behavior change – than even narrative verbiage. We mustn’t think we, as teachers and preachers, are limited to only one kind of input/exposure. There is an enormous “storytelling” movement in the American church, and it is okay – but it is often treated as the “best” or even “only” way the gospel can effectively be used to reach post-moderns. It is short-sighted pedagogically and theologically. We need to think – and teach and preach – in more broad-based ways if we want maximum effect.

    God (Father/Son/Spirit) and their undersheperding prophets and teachers did not JUST tell stories for thousands of years. Over and over they ACTED THINGS OUT. And they included the acting out in their repertoire for most of the same reasons we’re pitching stories: to get past mere logic to the imagination…and remembrance, and behavior. To get humans to faith. Faith must be grounded in more than mere logic before it can have its maximum effect.
    /soapbox off/