Sunday, June 8, 2014

Your Brain Prefers Interactive Stories: Not Lectures - Tip #40

Why do we snooze when we are lectured at and why do we perk up when we are watching a story unfold? 

In the previous installments we talked about the different learner types as well as the elements of an effective interactive story that positively impact each kind of learner. We now have a clearer picture of how to structure our stories to make our lessons come alive.

This time, we take a look at the science behind the story-learner relationship. 
What happens to the brain when it's exposed to an effective interactive story experience? 
How can we use this to our benefit?

Human Nature and Stories

Look at these commercials. What attracts you to them?

Quick: Pick a memorable TV commercial from the last five years that made you really want to buy a product. Chances are, you'll pick a commercial that made you feel something: it might have made you laugh, or touched your heart, or made you think.

Advertisers know that to make a brand or product memorable, you have to tell a story. In 30 seconds, a well-crafted commercial can inspire a variety of emotions that really grab the viewer. These emotions and ideas are now positively associated with their brand, and makes the brand more appealing. Voila! Recognition + Emotional Connection = Brand loyalty. 

This philosophy works because as we learned about Positive Stories, touching the emotional core of people increases their sense of involvement, memory, and makes them more receptive to ideas and learning.

Cause and Effect: The Story in a Nutshell 

Brains light up and get pumped up when we tell or listen to good stories. Researchers in Spain found out that compared to a plain, straight-laced, bullet-point presentation, using a story in presentations activates more areas of the brain. Multiple sections of the subjects' brains were lighting up as though they were experiencing the story in real life!
Lauren Silbert, Greg Stephens, Uri Hasson

How is this applicable and useful to our Learner Types?

According to Leo Widrich, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences.

The insula is the part of the brain which we use when we are trying to relate to something or to find similarities between our experiences and those of others. It allows us to empathize and to connect through shared life stories. The insula allows us to create links between causes and effects, and to remember those connections.

This is the part of the brain that we aim for when creating our interactive stories.
In the diagram above, we see what is called the Neural Coupling Model. The two brains in the diagram are individual items, each one with its own unique set of memories, knowledge, thoughts and so on. Simply defined, neural pertains to the brain, and coupling means "the pairing of two items". This phenomenon happens when a speaker is able to create similar brain response patterns in another person, creating a connection between them through the story or information being shared.

This connection makes the listener more open, empathetic, and understanding. In turn, this makes for better learners.

In eLearning where the verbal communication between speaker and listener is absent, the emotion and vividness of our story are even more important. Furthermore, to encourage the "coupling" of lessons and learner, we encourage the use of Story Questions - questions that bring in the learner to interact with the story.

Hard-hitting Stories that Make an Impact

But of course, we are not scientists or neurobiologists. Knowing how the brain reacts to stories is great; now how do we use this in practical terms?
  1. Study learner types. Use or create stories that will touch each kind of learner and have a universal appeal.
  2. Simplify. Our Instant Learning tips tell us to keep things short, precise and concise. Don't skimp on the details, but avoid unnecessary length as well. A balance is what we are looking for to be effective.
  3. Keep it fresh. Most of your learners will be adult-aged, and are likely to have undergone other trainings before. Avoid clichéd stories and overused words or phrases to avoid loss of impact. In one study, scientists found out that common phrases like "rough day" didn't even register with listeners anymore.
  4. Keep it real. Aim for real-life experiences that people can relate to. Use your own stories! If that does not apply, do more research and get stories from real-life people and case studies to make the learning more authentic.

While there are a variety of learner types, the human brain and human nature work pretty much the same way for most people you will encounter. An understanding of how the brain works with regards to interactive stories can give you a powerful teaching tool that will add a new and more engaging dimension to your courses.


Tip #10: How to Teach Very Complex Ideas with Story-Based eLearning Scenarios

Tip #38: Making Learning Styles Come Alive in Interactive Stories

Tip #39: Employing Story Structure and Dynamics to Engage Different Learners

Your Brain on Fiction

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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