Brains Love Stories: How Leveraging Neuroscience Can Capture People’s Emotions
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How Leveraging Neuroscience Can Capture People’s Emotions

Brains Love Stories: How Leveraging Neuroscience Can Capture People’s Emotions

This is your brain on stories…any questions? Join me for the latest episode of the GSB’s Think Fast Talk Smart podcast where neuroscientist David Eagleman and I discuss best practices for storytelling, connection, and engagement.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams sits down with David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and the host of the PBS series The Brain, to discuss why our brains are wired for storytelling and how new senses might impact our connection and communication with others.

“I’ve always been really interested in this idea of how we can pass information to the brain via unusual channels,” Eaglemanopen in new window says. “We’ve got our eyes or ears or fingertips and our nose, we’re very used to this and we sort of think these are fundamental, but of course, this is just what we’ve inherited from a long road of evolution … It turns out you can push information in the brain in other ways.”

Full Transcript: Brains Love Stories

Matt Abrahams: The professor in the very first communication class I ever took started by saying communication is very simple. You just need to get what’s in your brain into the brain of someone else. And while he was right, that brains are definitely involved, there is nothing simple about it. Today we’ll hear from a world renowned neuroscientist who will provide insights into how our brains help us communicate with each other.

Hello, I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. I am so thrilled to chat with David Eagleman. David is a neuroscientist and an adjunct professor in psychiatry at Stanford. His research includes sensory substitution, time perception, vision, and synesthesia. He is the author of eight books including his latest: Live Wired. David wrote and hosted The Brain, an Emmy nominated television series on both PBS and BBC. And if that isn’t enough, he has launched several neuroscience companies based on his research. Welcome, David, Thanks for being here.

David Eagleman: Great Matt, thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Matt Abrahams: Great, let’s get started. I’m sure neuroscience has something to say about how do we gain people’s attention and how do we sustain that attention?

David Eagleman: Yeah, I mean, really at the heart of this is storytelling. There’s a sense in which storytelling over the centuries has perfected structures to do this to make people feel like okay, there’s something going on. There’s something that needs to be solved. There’s an unresolved chord here that needs to be resolved. We are suckers for it, you know it’s — there’s a great book by Jonathan GodShaw called The Storytelling Animal and he uses the analogy that If you remember, at the end of Star Wars when Luke has to try to get this bomb into the Death Star and he finds his little porthole and if he can just drop the bomb right into that little hole, it blows up the whole Death Star. And essentially that’s what storytelling is to our brains, it is the porthole that completely can sway us can make us feel like oh, make us laugh, make us cry, make us understand someone else’s point of view, or at least push us in that direction. So that is really at the heart of what neuroscience tells us about how to, how we communicate and how we engage people.

Matt Abrahams: So it’s safe to say our brains are wired to receive stories is that what I’m hearing?

David Eagleman: Yeah, that’s exactly right or a different way of saying is that stories are crafted to plug into what matters to the brain.

Matt Abrahams: I wanna jump into a point that you mentioned about stories — that stories seize our attention and engage us. Are there certain elements of storytelling that really capture the brains? For example, is it being very vivid or using emotion? Are there things that neuroscience points to that really locks our brain into story and communication?

David Eagleman: You know what’s funny? So I teach the brain and literature at Stanford and one of the things that is really I’ve been chewing on a lot lately is that everybody is very different on the inside. And some people just as one example, are very vivid visualizers, if I say imagine an ant crawling on a red and white tablecloth to a jar of purple jelly, some people see that like a movie. At the other end of the spectrum, some people just have a conceptual understanding of it, but there’s no picture there at all and everywhere in between. And so it turns out that I think there’s no single answer to the question you asked in terms of thing is vivid, for example. What I’ve been hypothesizing lately and this is nothing but my own idiotic hypothesis on that writers like I don’t know James Fenimore Cooper or Thomas Hardy probably had extremely good visualization. And so they assumed that everyone else their readers would like that too. Whereas somebody like Ernest Hemingway, I assume, had terrible visualization, and he assumed that his readers would appreciate not having all those details. And so there’s no single answer to how vivid to make something because some people like Hardy and Cooper and other people like Hemingway interesting.

Matt Abrahams: So it seems to me that the advice that would come from that is twofold. One, remind yourself that your worldview is not the same of others and second, try to appeal to a variety of different ways of seeing the world to catch a bigger audiences. Are those two fair takeaways?

David Eagleman: Yeah, those are very fair takeaways. And I should mention something because you also asked about the emotional piece. Now, that’s something we all have in common, now, people have different levels of emotion. If you’re a psychopath, you really don’t care about someone’s emotion, other people are hyper empathic, and so on. But that is actually a big important part of dropping the bomb into the Death Star is making sure that you are finding ways to capture people’s emotions. Because fundamentally people know they don’t necessarily care about whatever the topic is you’re talking about whether that’s physics or gardening or genealogy or whatever. If you’re speaking to a broad audience, you need to figure out what the piece is that connects to them that makes them feel something in particular, that’s the important bit.

Matt Abrahams: Yes, so you are echoing what we’ve heard many times on this podcast that really understanding your audience and what’s relevant to them is critical to helping make for effective communication and and you’re layering on that.

How understanding that relevance and tying it to some emotion and some story can really drive home what it is you’re trying to do in terms of connection and get your point across, for sure. So I’d like to ask you — you are involved in so many fascinating research projects and ventures. Perhaps the most intriguing is your effort to create new senses. Can you tell us about this work and then discuss how new senses might impact our connection and communication with others?

David Eagleman: I’ve always been really interested in this idea of can we pass information to the brain via unusual channels. So I mentioned that we’ve got our eyes or ears or fingertips and our nose, we’re very used to this and we sort of think these are fundamental. But of course, this is just what we’ve inherited from a long road of evolution. But it turns out you can push information in the brain in other ways.

And so in my lab, we developed … originally was a vest that was covered with vibratory motors, we’ve now shrunk this down to a wristband with a number of vibratory motors on it. And we can pass very detailed information in through patterns of vibration on the skin. So I spun this out of my lab, it’s a company called Neosensory. We’re now on wrists all over the world. I’ll give you just one quick example which is for people who are deaf. We capture sound on the wristband and it turns it into patterns of vibration on the skin and people who are deaf can come to hear the world and can understand what’s going on around them.

Now, we actually have 70 different projects going on. We’re passing in new senses for people, either who are missing a sense or who just want something extra like infrared vision or picking up on the stock market or, whatever. So anyway we’ve got all these experiments, but in answer to your question about how that can impact our communication and connection with others — one of the things that we’re trying, we have tried is many smart watches can measure all kinds of things like your heart rate, heart rate, variability on your galvanic skin response, all these different things. So what we do is we pull it off the smart watch, we push that through the internet and then to the wristband.

So that you are feeling, let’s imagine you’re wearing the smart watch on one hand and you’re feeling you’re wearing the wristband on the other hand. And you’re feeling all these states of your body that are normally invisible to you, like your galvanic skin response and so on. Okay, but that’s not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is your spouse wears the watch and you wear the wristband so you’re feeling her physiology. And you can be, because it’s through the internet, you can be on the other side of the globe. And you can call up and say, hey, honey you seem like you’re stressed out you’re having a bad day is everything okay? That kind of thing, now, I have no idea if this is gonna be good for marriages or bad for marriage.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, I was just thinking that.

David Eagleman: Yeah, it’s probably a terrible idea, but I’m very interested in all the experiments that we and others will be able to do with this in the near future. Like, what if you’re wearing it at work? What if your colleagues, everyone’s feeling each other’s physiology. Now again, probably a terrible idea, but I think there’s many interesting things about connection and communication to be tried here over the coming years.

Matt Abrahams: I find this, David, so fascinating and a use case for you to consider is, as all of us have become much more familiar with virtual communication through a variety of different tools. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could get some insight into our audiences in the way you’re talking about — haptically through these sensations while we’re in the midst of communicating. Because all the feedback that we get … there all these tools, it’ll tell you talk time and how intense your voice is, but it distracts you you have to look somewhere else. You have to be distracted from it and yet if I had something on my wrist just vibrating to give me that information in real time. I could make adjustments in a non-distracted way.

David Eagleman: Yeah, we’ve actually done a version of that that would only work for really, really big speakers. But we have done this version where we can scrape Twitter in real time for any hashtag. And then do an automated sentiment analysis, which is say are people tweeting negative or positive things about this with this hashtag and on the fly, you can feel what’s thousands of people are experiencing. So this would probably only work for like a president or somebody who’s giving a big live talk. But during the talk with a few seconds delay anyway, you can start feeling how the whole Twittersphere is responding to you.

Matt Abrahams: My goodness, I don’t know, we have to be careful with that. But yeah, fascinating, fascinating. You know, perhaps more than anyone I’ve interviewed before you communicate in so many different ways writing, television, lectures. And to so many different levels academic peers, students, the general public. Would you be willing to share a bit about your process for creating targeted, insightful communication?

David Eagleman: Yeah, when I started in grad school, I tried to write my papers in such a way that the readers of the scientific papers would have some reason to care. I tried to avoid passive voice and use active verbs. I chose beautiful words when the situation called for it and so on. Even though this was an unusual choice for a science publication and my managers really worked to beat that out of me, they thought that it was ridiculous that I was writing that way, but I kept at it and I still write my science papers in the way that I think people can digest more easily. The sciences exactly as rigorous, but I tried to make it so that people care and they get analogies and they understand what’s going on. And so I think I would say generally my writing has a lot in common across all these different audiences. Which is to say, you can’t assume that anyone’s gonna care about your particular neuroscience study or whatever unless you do the work to give them a reason to care.

For the reader this highlight something about your life or or your favorite actor or the way to raise your kids or illuminate something about a historical event that you thought you understood. There’s a new layer to it or whatever but it can’t just be, hey, I ran this experiment here’s the result, right? And this is equally true across writing television and lectures. It’s equally true across academics and communicating to the general public.

Matt Abrahams: Well, I have read many of your books and watched many of your lectures and shows and you have an ability not only to make things that, for me, seem out of reach reachable, but you make them interesting.

And I think it’s true what you’re talking about, understanding your audience, making it relevant and connecting for sure. I want us to hit on one issue that you’d mentioned just briefly, but you’ve demonstrated today, and that is the use of analogies. You use them a lot, in fact, today you talked about Star Wars and I’m curious to learn more about it.

In fact, in your latest book, the title Live Wired is is actually an analogy too. I’m curious if you can shed any insight not only to your use of analogies, but is there something in neuroscience that talks about the power of analogies?

David Eagleman: Okay, great so this is generally one of the special ways in which human brains function very differently from computers. So a computer, whatever you put into it, that just comes right back out, it keeps one file separate from another. But with human brains, Romeo can say Juliet is like the sun and we understand that he means she’s bright and beautiful,

Matt Abrahams: Right.

David Eagleman: Transforms darkness to daylight and so on all the things that the sun does. Human brains are particularly good at understanding the structure of things and then understanding, okay, this is like this. So it’s a very powerful way to get information in there, because it’s taking a path that people already understand. And saying, hey look, this is how the new thing works as well you already understand this thing, you already understand what it is to load a dishwasher or to see your friend’s face or to drive to work or whatever you have or something people get. And then hey, this thing is just like that, it’s very complicated physics concept that you thought you would never understand. Just think of it like this — bang and that is the way to get that bomb into the porthole.

Matt Abrahams: Nice, a nice way of coming back to that analogy. Yeah, I learned actually from one of my students how you can take analogies a little too far. But I totally agree that they’re very helpful in communication. We here in the US use a lot of sports analogies to explain things especially in business. It’s a slam dunk, push it across the goal line, hit it out of the park. But if you don’t know those sports, you’re in trouble and I had a student in the middle of a speech he was giving give an analogy to cricket. And you literally could hear crickets in the room because nobody knew how the sport was played. And he stopped and looked at all of us and said, that’s how I feel when you talk about American football and it was very powerful. So analogies I agree are wonderful, but you just have to make sure that everybody has that pathway already that you’re talking about.

So thank you for that and keep using the analogies, they helped me so much to learn what you’re saying. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I asked everyone who joins me on this podcast. Are you up for that?

David Eagleman: Yep, let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: All right, question number one, If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation, slide title, what would it be?

David Eagleman: Leverage storytelling and don’t use jargon.

Matt Abrahams: Nice, so we’ve talked a fair amount about storytelling. Can you can you tell us a little bit more about the problems with jargon?

David Eagleman: Yeah, I mean, this is what you see in grad school all the time is that a kid comes in, they feel intimidated by all their super smart professors and then people are sitting on their committee. And they figure okay if I use all these jargony words everyone’s gonna think I’m so smart and be so impressed, but it loses an audience for every jargony word you use, you lose half them.

Matt Abrahams: So jargon can obfuscate the meanings, you see what I did there I used a big jargony word. It can get in the way of you really understanding what’s being said and that’s so true. And I guess the challenge for many people is because we use some of those jargony terms all the time in what we do. We have to remember that not everybody else is part of that lexicon and we have to back off from using it for sure.

David Eagleman: Yeah, and by the way, that is critical and I can tell you how I solve that in my books and in my television, which is, I’m always crystal clear on who my audience is. My audience is me when I was much younger and didn’t know that word and didn’t know that piece of jargon.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, I like that.

David Eagleman: That’s who I’m talking to.

Matt Abrahams: I’m gonna steal that. That’s great so instead of imagining necessarily who this amorphous audience is, just see yourself at a different time in your life, I like it.

David Eagleman: Exactly and if that young person would think, oh my god, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. I have no idea then then you’re then you’re there.

Matt Abrahams: You hit the bull’s eye, great.

David Eagleman: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

David Eagleman: For me it was it was Carl Sagan because he spoke so genuinely and passionately about the things that he loved. And I grew up in the mountains of New Mexico and aside from my parents, I didn’t have a single example of what of what a science communicator was like … of what big ideas could look like and why they were beautiful, and why they weren’t things to be intimidated by, but to be madly attracted to. And so I would say Carl Sagan single handedly changed my trajectory in life. And I just I regret that he passed away a long time ago. I never met him, but he’s the one that I admire, in fact, I named my son’s middle name Sagan.

Matt Abrahams: Oh cool, what a tribute. Yes, I think you and I are of similar vintage and I and Carl Sagan certainly was an amazing communicator for sure.

David Eagleman: Yeah and by the way, just on that vintage thing, I’ll just mention I pulled up Cosmos on YouTube.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

David Eagleman: The original Sagan Cosmos and had my kids watch it and they loved it too because his stuff doesn’t age.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent, that’s a good idea. I need to get my kids watching some of that to believe me, it’s much better than what some of the other stuff they watch. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

David Eagleman: You know … this is a very specific tangential one but I you I feel like don’t put words on slides unless you really need them. So somehow everyone does these bullet lists on PowerPoint. And that’s the worst thing you could possibly do. And the reason is it’s just very difficult for an audience member to listen to you and try to read what’s written there the same time so it’s very distracting. So just don’t use words on slides.

Matt Abrahams: I am going to take that soundbite that you just said and I’m going to play it over and over again. I’ve been saying that for years but having a renowned neuroscientist, say bullets kill, don’t kill your audience with bullet points is a phenomenal, thank you. Did you have other ingredients to add?

David Eagleman: Well, yes, I think I’ve already said that, but like don’t try to show off how smart you are by using big words.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

David Eagleman: And make it matter to people through storytelling.

Matt Abrahams: Right, so it’s about story, it’s about using language that can connect to people. And it’s about Images in emotion, not just lists, so excellent that recipe is going to turn into a great dish for sure. Well, David, thank you so much. Your insights into neuroscience, into storytelling, into connecting with others is is fantastic and incredibly helpful and actionable. And I guess I should end by saying may the force be with you since you use Star Wars as a great analogy for us.

David Eagleman: You too, Matt. I really appreciate being here.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. For more information in episodes, visit or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts.

(As published on the Stanford GSB website.)


September 7, 2021