How storytelling primes our brains for learning

Sophia Wichtowska, Content Writer

“We are, each of us, a product of the stories we tell ourselves” - Derren Brown

British illusionist, mentalist, and author, Derren Brown, is famous for having an incredible memory. Give him twenty minutes, and he can memorize the entire contents of a book chosen at random from a library. 


One of the techniques he uses to recall information quickly draws upon the storytelling processes in our brains. To memorize a shopping list, you make a mental image of each object at various locations in your home. When you go out shopping, you visualize walking through your home, remembering the position of each object on the list when you need to recall it. 

Attaching the objects to a familiar place or journey, such as your walk to work, makes the information far more accessible as we have placed them in an everyday context. Helping your brain to create a narrative around otherwise dull information dramatically increases its ability to recall the information. 

Stories are our most vital means of communication. We have been telling them for 27,000 years since the first cave paintings. They are not only crucial to memorizing facts but hugely beneficial for developing the spectrum of skills required to learn new skills.  

So why have our brains developed in this way? And how can storytelling help with learning at work?

Why our brains are wired for storytelling

At its core, storytelling has an evolutionary purpose. When somebody tells us a story, through empathy, we can feel whatever emotions that story conjures. This connection gives us an insight into a different world, which has a significant biological advantage. 

We also think in narratives. No matter which type of activity we are completing, we are commentators on our daily activities. Even when we speak to each other, researcher Jeremy Hsu found that “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.” 

In a post for the Harvard Corporate Learning Blog, Vanessa and Lani Peterson, Psy.D., a psychologist and professional storyteller, explain that storytelling is a vital method of communication: 

“Storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Stories convey the culture, history, and values that unite people. When it comes to our countries, our communities, and our families, we understand intuitively that the stories we hold in common are an important part of the ties that bind.”

They add that stories build a sense of connection and trust. They allow the listener to enter the story based on their context, which makes them more open to learning. Stories are also a simple way to communicate complex ideas and are far more engaging than having to listen to a list of points being read out from a PowerPoint - a typical feature of team meetings or traditional corporate training classrooms.  

How learners can benefit from storytelling

1. Storytelling works for all learners 

Research shows that when teachers incorporate storytelling into learning, they help learners to retain information, no matter what their learning style is

Vanessa and Lani Peterson explain that:

“In any group, approximately 40 percent will be predominantly visual learners who learn best from videos, diagrams, or illustrations. Another 40 percent will be auditory, learning best through lectures and discussions. The remaining 20 percent are kinesthetic learners, who learn best by doing, experiencing, or feeling.”

2. Liven up compliance training or dry topics

Creating a story out of otherwise dull information helps learners to connect the information to other parts of the brain. For example, weaving workplace health and safety requirements into a series of stories would activate the empathy processing centers in the brain, meaning learners can better connect with the importance of staying safe at work.

3. Learning through stories increases engagement

Uri Hasson from Princeton explains that a story is the only way to activate specific parts of the brain. When hearing a story, the listener automatically turns what they pick up into their version, which forms part of their experience. We are wired to listen to stories as a way of passing on and remembering essential information, which is why a narrative structure works so well in a learning context.  

4. Stories create a framework for learning

Practical stories help to put learning in context, which is helpful for workplace training. One of the main goals of training is for participants to be able to apply their knowledge in a practical setting. Acknowledging this during the learning process makes the transition from online to real-life scenarios far smoother. 

Stories also enable learners to work with a familiar context. Recognizable scenarios help learners to make connections between new information and their previous experience. 

5. Through onboarding, stories can communicate your organization’s vision

Onboarding new staff members is an excellent opportunity to communicate an organization’s vision. When an onboarding course is constructed using storytelling, organizations can communicate the pillars of their brand to new staff members, and embed that story in their initial experience of the company. 

This process not only prepares new employees better for their role within the company but helps to lay the foundations for a connection to the organization’s strategic goals. 

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