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Tent of Bad Science 3: The Science of Storytelling

As part of the Tent of Bad Science at START 2020 - Trinity's European Researchers' Night event - Will Storr, Prof Ruth Barton and Dr Clare Kelly investigate the importance of storytelling and why stories matter, especially when it comes to communicating about science.

START 2020

START - Start Talking About Research Today - was Trinity's European Researchers' Night event in 2020.

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 955428.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (edited for clarity)

Jenny Daly: Welcome back to What Do You Want To Know, where we are bringing you a mini-series called the Tent of Bad Science. The tent was part of the programme at START, which stands for Start Talking About Research Today. START was Trinity College Dublin’s European Researchers’ Night event in November, 2020. We hosted four public discussions on topics like fake news, climate change, the importance of how we tell stories and power and protest, and we're sharing the recordings of those events with you now. Enjoy!


Sarah Bowman: Ok, hello, we're going to get started! You're very welcome to the Tent of Bad Science. Today we are looking at the science of storytelling and I'm delighted to have our speakers here with us today. This is part of European Researchers’ Night activities and START 2020 is hosted by the Office of the Dean of Research. But today we're really looking forward to having a conversation with Will Storr, Professor Ruth Barton, and Dr. Claire Kelly, in which we investigate creativity, science, storytelling, and, you know, based on the preparations for this call, I'm certainly excited to have these three together in conversation. I first want to welcome Will Storr, who's an author and journalist, and thank him for visiting us here at Trinity College, albeit virtually – we do hope that we will have the opportunity to invite you at some point in person. But you know, Will's work has been inspirational to us across college; his 2013, The Heretics and 2014, The Unpersuadables – which looked at adventures with the enemies of science – was really instrumental in terms of how we understand and engage with people who have different perspectives than we do. His 2017 work on Selfie, and his 2019 book on The Science of Storytelling is the inspiration behind tonight's event, and we're very fortunate to have him here. And one of my favourite quotes comes The Science of Storytelling and it says, “the gift of story is wisdom”. And I'm really looking forward to engaging with Will and Ruth and Claire tonight on that topic.

Professor Ruth Barton is Head of School here at Trinity College and she's Head of School for our Creative Arts Programme. She has an interest in history and heritage in terms of Irish cinema and television, and as a historian and film critic offers a really unique perspective on stories and creativity.
And then we're also joined by Dr. Claire Kelly, who comes to us from the Institute of Neuroscience here at Trinity College. She has a background in psychology and neuroscience, and has really been looking at imaging and other technologies to understand the function and the structure of the brain, and her area of interest is really around identifying mental health issues in the developing brain.

So together we have these very unique perspectives from visual arts, to storytelling, to neuroscience, psychology, film, and should prove to be a really exciting discussion for all of us. So I want to jump in and ask a first question. I'm going to begin with you Will, since the event is based on your work and on the science of storytelling, but maybe kick us off and tell us, you know, explain to us what science can tell us about storytelling.

Will Storr: Okay. Thank you, Sarah. Yeah, it’s great to be here. So I think the main thing that the, kind of what science can tell us about storytelling, the kind of the fundamental thing is that we're all natural-born storytellers: storytelling isn't something that you have to have gone to a university to do; it isn't something that, you know, Shakespeare worked out to do hundreds of years ago – we are natural-born storytellers. And in fact, you know, one of the, kind of the leading theories at the moment about why we developed language in the first place is to swap stories, to swap gossipy information in the tribes we evolved in and that gossipy information would connect, keep that tribe kind of functional, keep everyone behaving properly because nobody wants to be the target of bad gossip. So, and children begin to kind of do pseudo gossip almost as soon as they can talk. So, it really is embedded in us. We are, you know, saying we're natural-born storytellers sounds like a kind of banal, Ted Talk, a bit of rubbish, but it's genuinely true. We really are a natural born storytellers.

SB: Fantastic. Claire, I'm really interested in your perspective on this because you're looking at that intersection of psychology and neuroscience. Can you talk to us about what's happening to us? What's happening to our brains, to us as we're either engaging in storytelling or listening to stories, there may be very different processes.

Claire Kelly: Sure. Sarah, thanks. So just picking up on what Will said about humans being natural-born storytellers and us using story and perhaps, you know, even having developed language in order to transmit stories. And one of the jobs of story, researchers think, is to simulate reality to communicate important information that allows us to imagine other possibilities. And we actually spend a huge amount of our time during the day doing this anyway, right? We do a lot of imagining about what if or imagining possible pasts or possible futures.

And we know from neuroimaging studies that have tried to map out, you know, where in the brain is most active when somebody is reading or listening to a story, that when we are doing that, when we're listening to a story and simulating the reality that's conveyed in that we actually engage the very same parts of our brain that are engaged by the real experience. So, you know, stories are like our simulations in this really real sense then, like we can visualize the world depicted in a story: we can feel the wind on our face or hear the rustling in the trees or whatever it is by activating the same parts of the brain, the same circuits that would be activated by experiencing the real thing. And it's not identical of course, but it's a simulation. And even more than that, you know, we can feel what the character feels.

So we feel, you know, the fear they feel when they're facing the monster, the sadness they feel when they face a loss. And so stories also engage our really powerful machinery for social interaction, but also perspective taking and empathy, and our ability to literally put ourselves in someone else's shoes and feel what they're feeling. And this is one of the most powerful aspects of stories, right? Because it can really help us experience this common humanity, we can even feel the same thing as people that we don't know, or maybe even don't identify with. So researchers have shown for example, that stories can help reduce bias against minorities by, you know, exposing us to their perspectives and helping us to feel what they feel. And then I just wanted to mention another really cool set of studies that have been done by a professor in Princeton called Uri Hasson.

So, he and his colleagues have developed some really powerful methods for understanding the effects of storytelling and story perception on the brain. So they can do this thing called intersubject correlation when people are listening to stories, and this method just looks at the extent to which activity in different people's brains is synchronized when they're listening to a story – so the extent to which the pattern of activity or information processing is shared across people. And so what they've shown is, is that if you know, say you, Will, and I are, are listening to Ruth tell a story, then the activity in our brain is synchronized, and it matches, and the better the storyteller or communicator that Ruth is the better the synchrony between our brains and hers. And even more than that, like, the more that we share an interpretation of the story, or the more we share emotion being evoked by the particular story, the more synchronized our brains will be. So, you know, this also gives us insight into why stories are so powerful because they literally just temporarily make our brains more similar.

SB: Wow, that's fantastic, and that's fascinating information! Ruth, I'd love to hop to you because you're in this space of film, history, heritage. Can you respond to what Claire and Will are saying around this space of storytelling and creativity?

Ruth Burton: Yeah, for sure! Well, I'm, you know, I'm Head of the School of Creative Arts. So one of the things, you know, you could say we do is we teach people how to be creative, but then that's kind of a ridiculous idea because we've already just said everybody is creative. So how, you know, there's already something kind of gone wrong there between the idea of educating people to be creative and the idea that people are innately creative. And I mean, I think this, the idea of creativity in itself - it's very interestingly kind of circulating in society at the moment. So on the one hand, you know, it seemed to be an important part of wellness, for instance, that you explore your creativity and during lockdown, as we are at the moment, that the government here ran a series of advertisements, what to do, and one of course, you know, wash your hands and so on, but also do something creative. So, increasingly people understand that we need to express ourselves creatively, but then there's another thing that happens, which is a sort of series of gatekeepers. So there may be people, you know, in this conversation who have the unpublished novel in their bottom drawer or the, you know, the film script that they think is fantastic, but somehow hasn't got taken up by the right producer. So we also have kind of cultural markers, if you like, in society as to what's good.  But good isn't a really good way of judging things! And also what we say is good now may be seen to be absolute rubbish in 20 years’ time. And I think we can all think about that song that we loved dancing to 20 years ago, if you're in the age bracket and now it just fills you with just like cringy embarrassment, it's just so awful.

And yet at the same time, you know, we are also discovering works of art that were totally dismissed at the time of their making and now are considered to be good or great. So it's a really complex thing, creativity – we're being urged to be creative. And the other thing is it's become commercialized to an extent too. So companies are urged to be creative, and you're told, you know, if your mega-corp isn't acting creatively, you're going to get left behind in the great capitalist race. So I think creative, creativity and its linkage to the brain and to well-being, but also to how society kind of evaluates things is really, really interesting. Probably it's an even bigger topic than we can get to today, but we can sort of start cracking it.

SB: Yeah, absolutely. Will, I'd love to hear your feedback on what Ruth and Claire have said in terms of this concept of creativity and the empathy that comes from storytelling.

WS: Yeah, yeah, I mean, there's so much to talk about. So yeah, I completely agree. It's sort of weird to say, how can you teach creativity? And then equally we are, you know, it's true that we are natural-born storytellers, we're natural-born gossipers. And, you know, and if you think about a 60-word news story about you know, Meghan Markle or Anna Karenina, it all kind of reduces to gossip, it's all like this thing happened and you wouldn't believe it! And I guess in terms of, at least my book The Science of Storytelling, I suppose what I'm trying to do is, is teach people how to understand what's good about their storytelling and what's good about stories, and kinda maximize that.

You know, it's not just about making an egg, it's about making an amazing egg. So that's the joy of it really as well. And it's, you know, there's a lifelong joy. Nobody ever becomes a perfect storyteller and I'm sure anybody, any author will tell you that every book they write, they find they're making new mistakes with every book. They never quite learned the things they always think they have to learn. You know, it's a never-ending process and that's part of the, it's part of the pain of it to be perfectly honest, but it's also part of the joy of it, you know, feeling yourself slowly, getting better and getting better. So there's that. And there's also you know, we're saying about empathy and one of the studies I really liked and I came across to write about in the book, was they did it in the States and they got a bunch of people together and they measured their prejudicial, kind of biased views about Muslims.

And then they split them, and one group watch Friends, and of course Friends is just white people hanging out and drinking coffee. And then the other group watched a sit-com called Little Mosque on the Prairie, and Little Mosque on the Prairie is like a sort of a Cosby show but with Muslims, you know, just picture normal, ordinary people having normal, ordinary lives. And they met, and then they measured the changes towards their kind of biased views about Muslims. And they’d improved significantly after watching Little Mosque on the Prairie. And then they got them back into the lab three months later, and even three months later, the effects did remain. They still, you know, still had opened their minds and got them to see people who, you know, follow Islam as just people like them. So, it really is a, it's a kind of as Claire was saying, it's a kind a magnificently powerful device, the story, you know. If you think about it this way, you know, the brain is a storyteller, that we think in stories, we experience our lives in stories.

So if you want to change people's minds, you've got to do that in stories too. And one of those amazing ways is just showing people, just like you and me experiencing just the same pain and struggle and dreams and hopes, you know but then there's a very dark flip side to that as well. And the story has been at the kind of foundation of the most horrific acts that our species is capable of. You know, when the British were out there invading and colonizing other nations, they believed they were on a civilizing mission. And the story that they told was that they were the amazing white people, and these were the savages, and they were going out there and they were doing them all big favours. And that's a story, you know, that's a kind of morally inflected narrative in which they were the heroes.

And equally the Nazis told a story about the Jews, and the Communists told a story about the middle classes, and the kind of people who've been successful in their business life. And so, you know, gossip can be in the form of: Oh my God, you wouldn't believe it - this person did this amazing thing! But gossip can also be: this person is a demon, they're a devil, they're scum. You know, we need to deal with this. And so, it's strong magic, storytelling. It can be amazing and but can be sheer hell.

SB: That's fascinating. And I think that, you know, what it draws out for me really is that, you know, the power of story for good, or for bad, right? That we can utilize it as a tool to manipulate, to control, but also to inspire and to, you know, influence. And Ruth I want to throw this to you first, given your background in visual arts and film in particular. And then I would like all of the speakers to answer it, but how do we become better storytellers?

RB: Well, there are tools. And I mean, in fact, I'm just dangling it in front of the camera. I do have Will's book, as it happens, on my desk. He's actually got some pretty nifty tips at the back of it. So just a small plug for Will and I'm on a fairly minor commission so that's okay!

But you can, I mean, you know, you can teach people the kind of basic structures of storytelling and you know, there are some really basic structures that anybody can learn. And one thing is the three-act structure, right? So you start with a position of stability and a disruption occurs; you work through the disruption, which is act two and is the longer act; and in act three, you restore order, but order is not exactly the same order as you started with, something has changed. And that's the fundamental three-act structure. And if you watch any basic film or any Hollywood film, you're probably going to find, even though it's still conformed to the three-act structure, so you can teach people those, those kinds of things. And then also, you know, what you would encourage people, well, we would encourage people to do is exactly this notion of empathy, because on the one hand you're told to write, and it can be anything, right, is first of all, write about what you know about - so that's about yourself - but then also particularly in say in my area of film, it's about voices, about other people's voices. So you need to be able to tell a story that mimics other people's voices and gets into their heads. So if it's just you being replicated around a coterie of characters, you're going to get a very flat story, because you're just going to get you in different clothes. So it is about empathy, and about imagination, and imagination is really important because you can't, it's not a documentary. Well, the documentary is a different thing, but if it's fiction, you're imagining all these other people into life and you have to take yourself out of yourself then, and almost inhabit their bodies, like a sort of science fiction film.

So you can teach people to do all of this. And also what you can do is you have to be open to critique. And this is, again, going back to what Will was saying, and this is very popular now in kind of Hollywood filmmaking, Netflix, and so on is the writer's room concept. And this is where you sit around in a group and you build up a series of ideas and you critique each other. So you have to be prepared to listen to other people telling you “change that” and you have to change it. And this is really hard, right, because it's your baby, right. It's the thing that, you know, you know, you're right. But you have to actually be prepared to drop your baby, and walk out of the room and listen to it cry, and come back and, you know, pick up the baby again and do something different with it. So, there's just a few sort of tips and those things that we would work through when we're teaching people, how to, you know, express their creativity, you might say.

SB: Great, Claire, there's a question that's come in. And I said, I was going to pass that question on to you too. But I think it, this question actually relates very much to this topic, which is you know, in terms of becoming better storytellers, what are the advantages or disadvantages of syncing  the audience's brain? And it's a really interesting topic that that role of empathy and the opportunity to elicit a response of that magnitude probably has some pros and cons and goes back to, you know, what makes us good storytellers.

CK: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. Yes, it is. It's one of the things as Will said, you know, we can use this immense power for good or for evil. And so people can tell great stories that can trigger really strong emotions and empathy. But I suppose we always have to remember too that we need to question, you know, the source of those stories or why, you know, why somebody is trying to make you feel that way, because it's not always going to be for good ends. So while, yeah, stories can help us to better understand the perspective of people we don't know, or people in far away places that we've never met you know, stories are also being used every day by marketing firms to sell us stuff we don't need, by politicians to get us to vote for them, and by all sorts of - especially on the internet - all sorts of forces through, you're trying to get us to act against our own best interests, or at least just to do something that they want us to do. And I suppose, you know, we can think about like what I was saying about how, you know, our stories get our brains to synchronize with both the storyteller and the other people who are listening to the same story and, you know, doing this makes our brains more similar in that moment. But, you know, you can think about the way we do that every day, and on a really large scale through the particular kind of information sources that we deal with. So, you know, whether that's Fox News or The New York Times or The Irish Times, or The Guardian or whatever you know, in engaging in the same kind of story every day, our kind of our brains are being tuned to be more similar.

And we can start to think about how that might explain, like the way the, you know, society's becoming even more polarized than ever before. And then on the flip side, it kind of tells us how we can get out of that or one strategy we could use to get out of that, which is also a strategy that probably helps us to become a better storyteller too, is that thing of empathy again, and that of perspective, trying to take a new perspective, trying to understand or engage with stories that are not part of your favourite version of reality that maybe tell it from that other side and that might help us to, you know, to better understand other people and also to better communicate, right, by trying to take their perspective on the story.

SB: Absolutely. Will, you might jump in on this and give your thoughts about both points, which is around opportunities to become better storytellers, and then to Claire's point, opportunities to be better consumers of stories, and to be maybe a bit more cautious in understanding why we're reacting the way we're reacting to stories. Could you say something to that?

WS: Yeah, of course. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, just as Claire – I mean, I'm fascinated to hear what Claire is saying about these studies that show brains synchronize, and it kind of reminds me that, you know, we forget often because we consume stories, you know, alone, cause often, you know, storytelling historically has been a communal thing. It was around the campfire, you know, in the tribe and there's something kind of magical, almost, about experiencing story in a cinema or in a theatre with, you know, with a whole group of people who are all kind of syncing together there. So there's definitely something in there that's really kind of fascinating. And in terms of [inaudible] consumers of stories, I mean, absolutely. I spent most of my career as a journalist writing for various newspapers.

And, you know, if there's one thing that - and I was a feature journalist. So, the feature journalist is somebody that doesn't have a specialism, I just went around just interviewing people that I was interested in interviewing, and meeting people I was interested in meeting. And so, you end up meeting an enormous variety of people from an enormous variety of backgrounds. And what if you sort of go into that process kind of sincerely, you can't help but be impressed and humbled by the fact that you know, when you hear other people's stories, it really does build huge amounts of empathy. You know, you go into a story as a journalist, or at least I did with that one idea of what the reality was, and this is a bad person I'm interviewing now, they're are baddie, they’re a villain, and then you listen to their story for a few hours and then you, you know, it's not that you change your mind and suddenly think they're a goodie, it's that you completely understand where they're coming from and why they've come to believe what they believe.

You know, that one of the most dramatic examples was when I, for the book The Heretics, when I spent some time with some Holocaust denying neo-Nazis, and of course, you know, these are cartoon villains. And what I've found out from talking to them was that a lot of them had parents that were in the Second World War fighting as Nazis. And on the last night of the trip, there was a performance, there was a showing of the film Downfall, which is the film, very realistic film of the last few days in Hitler's bunker. And one of the guys there didn't want to watch it ’cause it was too upsetting because his dad was there in the bunker, and it was too traumatic for him. And you realize that these people are Holocaust deniers because their mums and dads were often senior Nazis, and they love their moms and dads, and they cannot, they cannot accept this idea that their mums and dads were evil.

So, it really does, it's that thing of you, it doesn't change your mind about Holocaust deniers at all, but what it does is it builds that empathy, that they stop being cartoon villains and become mistaken, unhappy people. And I think that's a good thing, you know, I think culture has moved into a place in the last few years in which we almost discouraged from trying to understand people like Holocaust deniers, and racists, and it's almost seen as you're platforming them, you're amplifying them, but I think this is a dangerous narrative ’cause that's a story too, because what it says is that these people are beyond our understanding and what it does is it casts them in that role of cartoon villain. And once they're in the role of cartoon villain, then we're in the role of cartoon hero and that's a dangerous place to be.

SB: Yes, absolutely. We have a couple of questions that have come in, and I think it's good to enter first our conversation with what the audience is asking, but there was a question that came in from Nollag, and he wants to understand, you know, in a time where there are so many challenges and so much kind of tough news that we can be tuning into, how important are hopeful stories, either the ones we tell ourselves or the ones we come across and can they influence positive incomes outcomes? So this question that stories might be able to one, maybe resolve issues or two, make us act in ways that are better for us. What are your thoughts on that?

RB: Will I jump in there? Okay. So, I mean, I think, you know, the comfort of a good story, you know, can't be understated. And I think at the moment, many of us would much, much rather turn on Netflix and just get out of life. And there's nothing wrong with that. You know, we shouldn't feel that we have to confront challenges every day. You know, I'm totally addicted to - two final episodes tonight of the Queen’s Gambit. And in there is fun – sorry, I just froze for a second – identifying with the chess player. But there's also something very redemptive about that story. So I think that we need, you know, we shouldn't be too harsh on ourselves and say we always have to watch the tough stuff. And you know, if you're really in control of your life, which very few of us are, you would, you know, you would have a sort of schedule of viewing where on Thursday nights, you watch something, you know, really informative about, you know, the destruction of nature. And on Friday nights you watch total escapism. And so that, so it is, you know, comes back to, to balance. But I think there is, there's nothing wrong with losing yourself in a good book. It's a cliché. And again, just to go back to something that, you know, Will was saying, the thing that is disconcerting, I think, is the Amazon algorithm which says “if you like that, try this,” or the Netflix algorithm now, rather weirdly, we have a shared family Netflix on the account, so it keeps telling me that if I like some sort of extraordinary American soap opera that my son is watching, I should watch this while I don't want to but maybe I should. So I do think it's about, it's about pushing your reading boundaries or your viewing boundaries out, but also allowing yourself, you know, that comfort blanket of just some really, really good escapist entertainment!

SB: Claire and Will, you might answer this – do stories, fundamentally change our mental health, our anxiety or depression levels? I mean, do you feel that or does the research show that engaging in positive stories or inspirational or our awe inducing moments does actually have knock-on benefits that are positive to us? Do we know that?

WS: Yeah, well, I think, I mean, maybe Claire's the expert here, but certainly that's what therapy is, you know, I've had therapy, well, not for a while, but when I was younger. And that's what therapy does, it tells you a different story. It takes the events of your life and weaves a different story around them, which hopefully makes more sense. And there's this word that the neuroscientists have – so I feel like I should let Claire talk about this, but this is a great word, confabulation, which I love. And these two neuroscientists, Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry did these amazing experiments, for which I think they won a Nobel prize, where they looked at that voice, the narrator in your head that kind of narrates your days.

And they found out that that voice that tells you the story of your life doesn't actually have any access directly to the real reasons why you're doing what you're doing and thinking what you're thinking – it's making it up, it's confabulating. And so what we're doing when we're going to therapy is we're giving a more positive confabulation to explain our lives. And you know, so it's stories, in a sense are, when they're working on our behalf, they're useful illusions, they're always radically simplified. They're never really true. And so I think when therapy is successful, it's giving you a more useful illusion about you and the world.

CK: Yeah. I think that, I mean, you know, we've all heard of that, the self-fulfilling prophecy and how it, you know, it's really important to tell ourselves positive stories so that, you know, we will, that those are the ones that we can help to make come true. And I think people are trying to shift the narratives and moving away maybe from the mental health thing necessarily, although I suppose we all have climate anxiety, but if we think about the climate crisis and the way people are trying to approach that with story one of the things that people are trying to do is shift the narrative away from this terrible doom, which, you know, which is very real but, away from this idea that the doom is coming and there's nothing we can do about it to, yes, things are terrible and they will get worse, but we have the power to change things. And by telling that more positive story, we, you know, can help to make it happen and help us to take the action that we need to take.

SB: Hmm. There's a question that's come in. And it's, it's certainly you know, something we hear every day within the university system, and it’s probably something that our audience comes across too, which is, you know, how do, can we do a better job of communicating complex ideas? And I'm just, we'd love to hear your thoughts on, you know, whether communicating about science or communicating about challenging concepts is any different than any other form of communication? Are there tips or tricks or, you know, or things we could be doing if we want to better explain complex topics. And I'm going to throw that to you first Will.

WS: Yeah. Okay. So when I, you know, writing about science is something I've been doing for a long time. And really, you know, Ruth mentioned the classic three acts of drama – crisis, struggle, resolution – and really it's about kind of following those basic rules I think. Crisis, act one, a discovery is made, or someone or a puzzle is produced, this thing doesn't make sense, or this you know, this disease needs to be cured, or, you know, that it's the beginning of a detective story. And then act two is the struggle. It's the struggle of the researchers, you know, battling the puzzle, battling the kind of forces that may be trying to stand in their way and prevent them from, you know solving that puzzle, and then the resolution, the great kind of discovery.

But my book Selfie, the kind of spine of that book was the story of the discovery that self-esteem was, in the eighties and nineties, there was a very popular idea in psychology and in the culture that high self-esteem was what we should all have. We should love ourselves and everything would get better. There was telling a story about how that idea came about and the scientists, particularly Professor Roy Baumeister, who worked out that was rubbish. And he came up through, he came against lots of barriers because at the time it was this dominant idea. The tension always is there is that, you know, effective stories, stories are always, as I said, radical simplifications and effective stories are radical simplifications. And the tension between the writer and the science establishment is often, and absolutely justifiably, that we simplify too much.

And what we like in our storytellers is that one hero battling against the odds, and in Selfie, that one hero is Roy Baumeister. And of course, Roy had a whole team around him, and there was loads of people listed on his papers. So, that's one of the things that you always feel slightly guilty about as a writer of science is that you always end up kind of over-privileging one individual and, so that's one of those things. And the other thing I'd just say as a kind of a bit of advice, is that it's the cause and effect is really important to storytelling. Cause and effect is a kind of fundamental way that we way that we understand the world as an animal.

And it’s one of the things that makes us unique. I read about this amazing study where they, you know, one of our closest relatives is the chimpanzee; chimpanzee and the bonobos are our closest relatives. And they did some experiments comparing chimpanzee behaviour to human toddlers, and they gave the chimpanzees and the toddlers these wooden bricks to stack, and the game was to stack, was to put the bricks up like dominoes but inside the bricks there was a lead weight that was hidden, in this you know, place that would off-centre the bricks. So what happened was the chimpanzees just kept stacking the bricks and they would fall over and then just keep at it. But the human children, these are pre-verbal children, started looking at the bricks and trying to examine them, you know, they were asking without asking, what's causing this and what, and how can I fix it?

So, you know, cause and effect, we know when something happens in our environment, we immediately turn to that thing and we ask what happened and what's going to happen next? And that's how we build our sort of great narrative of our life. You know, we look back into our past and go, how did that happen? And that's a simplified narrative that explains who we are and where we, where we've come from. We imagine our future, we picture this cause-and-effect narrative that we hope to see in the future. And that's how we sort of, really the most compelling and easy to absorb stories are constructed is, is in this kind of relentless sequence of causes and effect. So, big Hollywood blockbuster, unlike a difficult art house film, is just cause and effect. It's the story of the shark and somebody attacking the shark.

And that's what makes it, one of the things that makes it so easy to absorb is, is that is the cause and effect is the language of the brain. So that's what we're also doing with that, with these scientific stories is that you're being very careful to keep that cause and effect as intact as possible and not suddenly start shoving in all this slightly disparate facts, you must know this and you must know that too, and that's quite difficult. That's quite a structural kind of headache sometimes.

SB: Ruth, I would love your feedback on this because it's, it's a question that's come in and it's very much related to what Will is talking about, which is around sort of what's included and what's excluded and the decisions we make in that storytelling process. But there's a question here from Linda, and Linda asks about using body language and better, you know, in telling a better story and it's moving from say a written story into the performance of the story, right? And I think, Will you know yourself, anyone who writes, there's the moment who, when you're, you're writing in seclusion, and then there's the performance piece of the storytelling. Ruth, would you give us some feedback around that, around body language and the performance side of stories?

RB: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that, you know, when you're writing and I write biographies as well as textbooks, you're always writing for a reader.
So you are imagining somebody reading, reading what you write. And so in a sense that brings your writing to life if you like, but that doesn't answer the body language question, the body language question is really about, you know, acting and performance. And of course, again, you know, the [inaudible] Will is using, there's a huge difference between a Hollywood movie and how that is performed and, you know, an art house movie where you might have really minimalist interpretation of, or, you know, mainstream theatre and, and very experimental theatre, where you mightn’t have a personal story at all, you might have a tree for the whole time. So in a sense what you want to do is you, I mean, I think it's, I'm actually fascinated in actors and people who are actors because they're losing themselves and becoming somebody else.

And like, I actually think the process of losing yourself over and over again, and becoming somebody else over and over again, must be, I mean, I don't know, it must be brain altering. It must be extraordinary to lose yourself. And I do think, you know, body language is really important, and a lot of actors will, if it's a real person literally copy them, you know, Margaret Thatcher – I was listening to Gillian Anderson talking about the voice and how you get Margaret Thatcher's voice. And there are really clear techniques as to how you do that, but that immediately makes Margaret Thatcher seem real in The Crown. So, absolutely body language is really, really important for actors to get, right. If you want the reader or the viewer to be immersed in the story, but in experimental theatre to say, you don't want the viewer to be immersed in the story, you want them to be always outside of the story and to be slightly alienated, and to be questioning what they're viewing. So then you don't want it to be realistic in a way, and you don't want to mimic Margaret Thatcher or whatever it is. So, how you perform your body, perform the body through the body is a really important question. Yeah.

SB: I’d like Claire to jump in because I'm really curious about that topic Ruth, around how we can either include or exclude in terms of those stories. So ways that we can either encourage people to join us or ways that we can exclude people through that act of storytelling. I'm just wondering Claire, is there anything that the research will tell us in either psychology or neuroscience around what makes us attracted and accepted at versus what, you know, kind of repels us or excludes us in terms of creating those stories?

CK: Yeah, I suppose, you know, they've looked at some of the things that make stories more effective. And one of the things is something that I suppose we've been saying you should try not to do so the more you identify with somebody in the story, so the more similar they are to you the more, you know, quickly you might feel empathy for them, but that doesn't mean that those are the only stories that you should stay with. We just, we know that that's just kind of how human empathy works. We tend to feel it most and most quickly for those who are similar to us and that's a function of our evolutionary past, right? Because as Will was talking about, you know, the reason we are, part of the reason we have empathy is because it helped us to function in these small groups that we evolved in, in the first place.

But, you know, evolution since then has used that empathy and expanded it out so that we don't just feel it for our kin. We now feel it for other people similar to us. And we can also feel it for people who are dissimilar to us. And that's, you know, one of the most important things about stories that we've been saying. And there are some of the other things that I'd say Will probably can talk, speak to these a little bit more, you know, things like the extent to which people can, you know, genuinely transport you. And at that the extent to which stories, you know transport you to the, I suppose, the place that they're talking about or the experience that can really make you feel that experience, also improve how good they are. But I think, yeah, Will might have some other ideas on that.

WS: Yeah. So, they call that transportations, that psychologists have studied the effects of storytelling. And that's the magic of storytellers. If you think about the conscious experience at any one time, you know, where this kind of place inside our heads, where all light and sound and knowledge meets, and when we're transporting to a great book, we forget time, we forget ourselves, we forget to get off the bus, we forget to go to sleep. And that's when we are transported, and it really is an almost magical capacity that stories have. And when people are put in brain scanners and they're put into that state of transportation, they find that the activity that's associated with their sense of self kind of diminishes as the world of the story kind of takes it over.

And when, when psychologists studied the effects of transportation, they do find that the transportation increases the likelihood that our beliefs and perceptions will change in line with that, the protagonist of the story, if that's the intention of the storyteller. So, yeah, it is an extraordinarily powerful thing. And just as Ruth was talking about body language and performance too, I was lucky enough to sort of talk to quite a Hollywood screenwriter a while ago who, and he told me two things that stuck with me about actors, which really impressed me. One of the things he said that the Hollywood screenwriters are always trying to do is cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, because every second of screen time on a Hollywood movie costs, who knows how much multiple thousands of dollars. And he said, when you get somebody like Leonardo DiCaprio in a room, they'll do a reading. And sometimes they'll be able to capture what you're trying to say with just an expression. And that will enable you to just get rid of three pages of your script and he said, that's what they do, the best actors, that's what they do. The other thing that he said was that one of the measures that he and his screenwriting partner uses to tell them that their movie is ready, is that you can understand it with the sound off. So you can just turn the sound off and you can completely understand the story. So that's pure acting, pure performance, pure body language. And I thought that was an extraordinary thing. And of course, we're not talking art house at all here. We're talking films that millions of people will go and watch again and again, and again and again. So if you're really looking at that, that maximally powerful storytelling that really does to have the ability to capture people all over the world, cross cultures, that's the kind of level that the story is told, it's so clearly and with such great performances that you don't even need the dialogue.

SB: It really goes to that point, though, of there being multiple levels to all stories, right? There's multiple readings, depending on what it is we're paying attention to. And I suppose there's a question here from Steve, which is really interesting which is: do you tell a better story if you're happy to veer from the truth? And I'd love to hear what you think about the concept of truth, and Steve's question around our ability to stray from that, does that somehow make us tell a better story?

RB: I’ll start! Because, I'm an academic I'm good at immediately going to say that there’s no such thing as the truth. What do you mean by the truth? My truth is not your truth. But I do think a very quick answer, I think probably, Will will have a few tips on this, but the answer is you make your own truth. So if I tell a story, well, you're going to believe that what I'm saying is the truth, just as this goes back to the whole thing around propaganda and everything else. It's how you tell the story and not what you tell, and if you actually believe the end of the day that you've been told the truth, then you've had a really good storyteller take you for a really good ride!

WS: I completely agree. Yeah. I mean, the thing about stories is they're never true. I mean, facts are true, but facts aren't stories. They're just, you know, points of data in isolation and the story that you tell around those facts, they're never true, at the very best they're half the truth, usually. If anybody's interested in this the psychologist Professor Jonathan Heights has some videos online where he, you can Google it, it's on YouTube, where he shows the two different stories that we tell about capitalism – the story that the Left tell and the story that the Right tell. And the story that the Left tell about capitalism is that it's exploitative, and it’s the 1% enslaving the masses and for their own benefits. And the story that the Right tell, of course, this is huge generalities, the story that the Right tell is that capitalism is freedom and before capitalism, we're all serfs and enslaved to the lords of the manor. And what struck me about those stories is that they're both true. They're not, neither of them are false. They're actually both true. I mean, capitalism is exploitative, but it also freed us. And so, but the reason that we, you know, we pick a story is because it's very motivating, it gets us out of bed in the morning, it makes us feel heroic because we're fighting this great moral battle on behalf of our story. But usually when people are having these great moral arguments, especially particular arguments, I think that usually nine times out of 10, both parties have half the truth, and both parties have half of a lie, and where we get it wrong is where we fail to acknowledge the other person's truth, you know, capitalism is exploitative, it's also freedom. And that's the confusing unsatisfying non-story of reality.

SB: Yeah, I suppose it goes back to that idea that, you know, especially in the Western culture, that there's this idea of resolution, right. That it comforts us, we get to the end of the story, and there's some ending, you know, that we can count on. And there's a great question here by Daniel and he asks around, it's around this concept of the stories that we are comfortable with and that we like, and he says: why doesn't our society as a whole, have a new compelling story to replace the story of neo-liberalism, despite the urgent need for one? And, you know, I think it goes back to why are we so comfortable in certain stories and we're so easy to reject and quick to reject other stories? I might start with Ruth on this and then ask Claire to hop in.

RB: Okay, fine. Well, it is, again, I think it's all sort of hyperlinked lives. So it's very hard to actually get bits of the story that you're in. And, so if I read a story in The Guardian, for instance, which is, you know, my newspaper of choice, I'm going to get, you know, a certain liberal perspective, but also for me to move out and read The Telegraph, for instance, to change my perspective entirely is really something I have to actively, you know, persuade myself to do but then, you know, you do get, you just get shifts. And so that, you know, if you're coming out of the kind of the neo-liberal phase which, you know, possibly we are, as we work towards, say, a more eco-aware moment in life, where, you know, we know that we actually have to make choices, then maybe we can, you know, those compelling stories just as Claire was saying, start to come into our consciousness and become more palatable to us than when they were very foreign and very different.

SB: Claire, is there anything that's happening to us? Something in the brain that makes us really like to retell or believe certain types of stories?

CK: I think it's that we find them rewarding and so we like to engage in things that we find rewarding. And so, yeah. You know, if you have young kids, anybody who's had kids over the last few years would be very familiar with the Frozen tune and other things that, you know, kids ’cause they experienced that even more strongly than we do, right, to get pleasure from this thing that they find rewarding. So yeah, like I think that that's part of it. And then you know, about the, why are we all taking part in this story if it's not the right one? And it's very hard for people to know that they are a part of this story, right? It's so interwoven in our daily lives, we don't really recognize it as a particular narrative or even realize the possibility to change it. And I think people are just, I think we're starting to wake up to that a little bit because people are starting to really express the problems, I suppose, with the, say the neo-liberal ideal in terms of like the climate impact, for example. And so some of the new stories that people are trying to tell there are things like the Green New Deal, as it's called in the U.S., you know thinking about climate justice and the just transition and so on and try, and, you know, there are people like Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac who are really driving this, you know, effort to tell another story. And it'd been a more positive story of change and getting us to see the problems with the story that we live now and how we can make it different, so that the future we choose is one where we, you know, we have a world for our kids and grandkids to live in.

SB: Ruth and Will, both of you have been involved in telling other people's stories, capturing narratives, both in terms of biography, Ruth, and then Will in terms of capturing those interviews and the time that you've spent with other people. There's a question here from Linda, interesting question. And the question is: what does the panel think about the ethics around telling someone else's story, a real person from history? What's unique about your approach in that space?

RB: Okay.

WS: I don't, I wouldn't say there's anything unique about my approach. But you know, I think if the question is asking about the ethics of telling other people's stories, I just don't see – and I understand that there's a debate about that at the moment, but I don't recognize it as a useful one or, or a valid one. We've been telling other people's stories for as long as we've been alive. It's part of our human nature. It's, as we've been talking about, it's part of the way that we, is part of the way that we create empathy, it's also part of the way that journalists sometimes manage to make the world a better place. I mean, I was lucky enough to travel to, or throughout, Africa for a portion of my career telling the stories of some extraordinarily brave, and desperate sometimes, people and those stories, you know, got attention to those people's problems and got, hopefully, got money to Christian Aid who helped kind of fund those stories. So, you know, there's not a moment that I would regret doing that telling those stories. And I think if we didn't tell those stories, where would we be? I don't know.

SB: Yeah. Ruth, what do you think, is there any ethical consideration or any concern you have when you're in that space of biography?

RB: Yeah, I did think about this a lot, particularly when I was writing my biography of Hedy Lamarr, who was a very famous film star, who is now perhaps slightly more famous for having more or less invented Wi-Fi. So she was, but she was also, you know, judged in her time by her beauty. And I wanted to, if you like, rewrite that story slightly and say, well, we need to think about her, not just about how she looked, but who she was, and also to consider her background as somebody who was Jewish and who escaped from fascism. So, but I was very clearly writing the story that I wanted to be told.

And, so I had to be very clear, and I make it very clear from the beginning. This was story, this was my version of her life. And it was only one of many versions of her life that could have been told. She was dead when I wrote it, I contacted her family, they didn't want to have anything to do with it. And so I was sort of in that sense, free to write it without it being official biography. But I mean, I was quite interested when the reviews came out, it was, you know, it was quite widely reviewed and it was widely reviewed as a feminist biography, which I think freaked publishers slightly because they said, Oh, well, there, you know, there are half the sales gone already because who's going to write a book, read a book by a feminist? And then of course you pick up some other sales, maybe, as a result, but I think you have to be very clear that you're only writing a story about a person, even if it's a biography, and that it's this question of truth. Again, you're not going to get the truth.

CK: Yeah. Right, even, even when it comes to the science, you know, I was going to pick up on this point earlier. You know, we, I suppose people often think that with science we're getting to a truth and that's often not the case. In science we have evidence for or against things. We can find evidence to support a hypothesis or against a hypothesis, but we can never prove anything. Now, maybe in some parts of science, like in maths or physics perhaps they can, but in the field that I work in, we can't. And so even there, you know, we're telling a story and we often have to be careful to tell that story in a way that respects the strength of the evidence for the story, you know, so that’s a kind of similar idea.

SB: That's true. There's one final question we just have about two minutes left and I'd like, each of you to answer it, it's a story, a question that came in from Michael. And the question is: what are the biggest mistakes people make when storytelling? Go ahead, Will.

WS: I think when I’m teaching storytelling to people who are writing screenplays or fiction, the one biggest mistake is that they think about plot and character as separate things. So, generally what happens is that we'll begin a course and I'll go around the table and they'll, say, tell me about your story. And then they'll say, well, this happens, then this happens, and I'll give you the sequence of events. And then I'll say, well, tell me who does it, or who's your protagonist? And then suddenly it gets all very vague. And they're not really quite sure, and they're this person, but they're also this person, they're also this person. And so my question then is, is if you don't know who your character is, how do you know all that stuff happens? Because in life, as in story, the things that we do, with the mistakes that we make, the dreams that we chase are a result of our particular weird, strange, odd personality. And so really if there's one thing that I tried to do with my book, and my courses is to begin with the character.

SB: Ruth, we'll hop to you. What do you think are the biggest mistakes people make when storytelling?

RB: I mean, I actually totally, I so agree with Will that I can hardly find anything original to say from my own perspective! But I think that it is, again, about really a lack of, it's this idea that we've talked about, of change, of something, of something changing the story. So if it’s just sort of a flat line story and nothing develops, so nothing really changes, it's actually just really boring. And, and you know, you're lost, you’ve fallen asleep, so it's, you know, don't be boring!

WS: Yeah.

SB: And Claire, from a perspective in psychology and neuroscience, what do you think, what are the biggest mistakes we make when we're telling stories?

CK: I think it's probably related to both Ruth and Will's points. I mean, you know, from the perspective of psychologists who have written about creativity and how to tell good stories, you know, one of the most important characteristics or key features of a story is surprise and novelty. So being able to change something and to do that in the context of the story is really important. So if it's, otherwise, like, as Ruth said, it's going to be boring and it's not, I suppose, creative in the same. It doesn't have that same characteristic.

SB: Thank you so much for your time today. I'm really appreciative of the conversation that we've had with Will, with Ruth, and with Claire, it's been a fantastic opportunity both today and as part of the full Tent of Bad Science events. I'd like to thank the Office of the Dean of Research, and especially Dr Jennifer Daly for making all of this happen. And my colleague, Michael Foley within the IGNITE office who's behind the scenes and doing tremendous work, and I'd like just to thank the audience for joining us for these terrific questions. And I wish you all a very happy evening. Take good care.

Jenny Daly: Thanks for listening! You can find links to a full transcript of the discussion and some other stuff in the show notes. There's also a recording of the event on YouTube if you want to watch it back. Thanks to Conor Reid at Headstuff for production assistance. And as always, you can send us ideas for future episodes via our suggestion box. We would love to hear from you! Bye for now!