In this age, people have ready access to information—whether off the Internet, through personal courses, or from medical professionals—about their health. However, this can instead overwhelm and paralyse the average layperson.

Ideally, decisions made should be informed and intuitive. To do so, some have suggested that we tap into our innate tendency to comprehend the world through a mental framework: Scientific storytelling.

Communicating science through the narratives

Science and storytelling seem incompatible. It is almost like trying to mix fact and fiction. Yet, it can be argued that even in science, researchers also compile their data to tell a story—that of the fictional ‘average’ person, with characteristics averaged from the hundreds of participants in the clinical trials supplying the data.

As Seth Godin, author of All Marketers are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World, says, “The stories we tell ourselves are lies that make it easier to live in a complicated world.”

Indeed, storytelling helps people make sense of the unfamiliar. And, this could be used to great effect in fields like medicine. For example, it has been proven that patient compliance is helped by an understanding of why certain procedures are necessary. By telling a ‘story’ of how the drug is supposed to work in the body—rather than merely describing its mechanism of action—patients are more likely to make the decision to adhere to medicine guidelines; ultimately, leading to better health outcomes.

The chemistry of storytelling

People take so well to stories because we are hardwired to a particular set of chemicals, which are activated in the brain when people hear stories. There is cortisol, commonly known as the ‘stress hormone’ – which is in fact produced to help one stay attentive when a story is started.

When we pay attention to the exciting events that occur in a story, dopamine is produced. It is an important chemical that rewards the brain with pleasure as we follow the story. It is part of a complicated learning process we have evolved to undergo.

Lastly, oxytocin comes into effect in the listener’s brain. Known as the ‘love hormone’, it in fact plays the bigger role of promoting prosocial, empathic behaviour – allowing the listener to identify with the protagonist in the tale.

Studies have found that the influence of these chemicals is so strong that it is able to alter one’s behaviour, regardless of the veracity of the story being told. In a 2009 study conducted by Paul Zak, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School, subjects were shown two videos of a father and son. One video told the more engaging story of a father with a son dying of cancer struggling to connect with him, while the other, of a neutral walk in the zoo.

Subjects were then put through a second experiment where they were given money to spend. It was found that those who produced the highest levels of cortisol and oxytocin were "more likely to donate money generously."

The power of storytelling to influence cannot be underestimated. Though it has the potential to manipulate, it can also be used for good—to draw patients into making the best decisions for themselves.

Applying storytelling in science

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, winner of a TED Residency, understands this. She has founded The Leading Strand, an organisation which pairs scientists and designers to better communicate and highlight important research through visual experiences that tell a story.

“I like to think about research studies as stories,” expressed Phingbodhipakkiya once in an interview. “There's a whole cast of characters—you’ve got scientists, you’ve got their research team, sometimes the patients. There’s the question, which serves as a hypothesis. And plot, in which scientists craft a series of experiments designed to get at an answer. And finally, there's always a result. This provides data, it gives an experiment meaning and value.”

Phingbodhipakkiya, who was a neuroscientist, realised the need for a new way that scientists could communicate with the general public when one of her research patients at Columbia Medical Centre asked her to explain the purpose of the experiments she had just conducted on him. He could not comprehend her, even though “all these words were flying out of [her] mouth.”

"I thought I have to do better. We have to do better as scientists,” she emphasised.

“I want to help people understand why scientific research matters and help them understand all the people, all the stories, and all the ideas behind this inaccessible institution that is science.” MIMS

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