Storytelling engages the brain; even in podcasts

Every couple of weeks Schaffner and I fire up our old time voice recorder machines (a combination of Skype and a recording app) and talk nerdy to each other about food safety stuff.

And what we’re watching on Netflix. Or Acorn.

And other stuff.

Last week we recorded and posted our 100th episode.

According to the New York Times coverage of a Nature paper, maybe we’re doing more than providing each other with a rant outlet.

We’re creating narratives that fire the brain up, and engage the audience to layer the experience.

Or something like that.Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 5.17.10 PM

Listening to music may make the daily commute tolerable, but streaming a story through the headphones can make it disappear. You were home; now you’re at your desk: What happened?

Storytelling happened, and now scientists have mapped the experience of listening to podcasts, specifically “The Moth Radio Hour,” using a scanner to track brain activity. Widely dispersed sensory, emotional and memory networks were humming, across both hemispheres of the brain; no story was “contained” in any one part of the brain, as some textbooks have suggested.

Using novel computational methods, the group broke down the stories into units of meaning: social elements, for example, like friends and parties, as well as locations and emotions . They found that these concepts fell into 12 categories that tended to cause activation in the same parts of people’s brains at the same points throughout the stories.

They then retested that model by seeing how it predicted M.R.I. activity while the volunteers listened to another Moth story. Would related words like mother and father, or times, dates and numbers trigger the same parts of people’s brains? The answer was yes.

And so it goes, for each word and concept as it is added to the narrative flow, as the brain adds and alters layers of networks: A living internal reality takes over the brain. That kaleidoscope of activation certainly feels intuitively right to anyone who’s been utterly lost listening to a good yarn. It also helps explain the proliferation of ear-budded zombies walking the streets, riding buses and subways, fixing the world with their blank stares.

Abstract of the original paper is below:

Natural speech reveals the semantic maps that tile human cerebral cortex
Page 532, 453–458
Alexander G. Huth, Wendy A. de Heer, Thomas L. Griffiths, Frédéric E. Theunissen & Jack L. Gallant
The meaning of language is represented in regions of the cerebral cortex collectively known as the ‘semantic system’. However, little of the semantic system has been mapped comprehensively, and the semantic selectivity of most regions is unknown. Here we systematically map semantic selectivity across the cortex using voxel-wise modelling of functional MRI (fMRI) data collected while subjects listened to hours of narrative stories. We show that the semantic system is organized into intricate patterns that seem to be consistent across individuals. We then use a novel generative model to create a detailed semantic atlas. Our results suggest that most areas within the semantic system represent information about specific semantic domains, or groups of related concepts, and our atlas shows which domains are represented in each area. This study demonstrates that data-driven methods—commonplace in studies of human neuroanatomy and functional connectivity—provide a powerful and efficient means for mapping functional representations in the brain.

Want effective food safety communication? Put a name and a face on victims

Acording to the Western Mail, in a speech tomorrow, Professor Hugh Pennington will tell world food safety experts at FoodMicro in Aberdeen that “we owe it to people like Mason Jones” to ensure “top-rate” safety systems are put in place. Mason Jones was a five-year-old boy who died after eating a school lunch in October 2005. Some 150 schoolchildren were sickened in the outbreak traced to the John Tudor & Son meat plant in Bridgend, which supplied hundreds of schools in the Valleys with cooked meats. Owner William Tudor was sentenced to 12 months in jail in 2007 after admitting breaching food hygiene rules and supplying contaminated meats to schools. A public inquiry into the outbreak, which Pennington led, was chronicled on barfblog.

What struck me about Pennington’s comments was how he, like Doug and I have been doing through barfblog and food safety infosheets, was putting names and faces on the victims. Pennington is calling out the food safety professionals to make food safety personal.  Food safety communication isn’t just about the statistics, it’s about the stories.

We’re not just making this stuff up.

Morgan and colleagues (2002) evaluated various safety messages targeted at farmers regarding the use of personal protective structures for vehicles, by presenting message combinations and surveying 433 members of the target audience. Although the researchers did not look at practices (self-reported or otherwise) of the target audience, and only measured what the respondents felt would have the highest impact with them, they found, that messages based on stories, and those that were meant to elicit fear about individual practices had more impact with than presenting consequence-based statistics alone.  Slater and Rouner (1996) investigated the effectiveness of a variety of messages containing a combination of narratives and statistics around the safety of alcohol consumption with a convenience sample of 218 undergraduate students. Slater and Rouner (1996) found that survey respondents who were non-believers prior to the presented information, rated messages with narratives as higher quality and perceived them as more effective.  Slater and Rouner (1996) also found that statistics alone only reinforced respondents who identified themselves as already believing in the messages. Psychologist Howard (1991) argues that narratives and storytelling are effective methods in conveying information and suggests that there is a better understanding of one’s place in a system when individual sees himself or herself as an actor within the context of a story.

Our research supports this concept of storytelling: the most impactful infosheets (from a food handlers’ point of view) are the ones which put a name and a face on victims, the food safety offenders and their establishments.  Food safety communications is about storytelling, and personalizing the outcomes for the front-line staff who are in control.

Howard, G. S. 1991. Culture tales: A narrative approach to thinking, cross-cultural psychology, and psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 46: 187-197.

Morgan S.E., Cole H.P., Struttmann T. and Piercy L. 2002. Stories or statistics? Farmers’ attitudes toward messages in an agricultural safety campaign. Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health. 8:225-39.

Slater, M. D., & Rouner, D. 1996. Value-affirmative and value-protective processing of alcohol education messages that include statistical evidence or anecdotes. Communication Research. 23: 210-235.