More Story, More Brain

When we learn about the OctoMom with a litter of kids in her belly and a carton of collagen in her lips, we tend to assign motives: "needs attention" or "wants to be Angelina." We start to speculate in this way as toddlers. Why did Mommy put her purse up on the counter? Hmm... Must be something neat in there that she doesn't want me to find. If I could just climb up to reach it...

Psychologists call this ability to attribute mental states to others 'Theory of Mind,' and the idea has been around for decades -- even centuries if you go back to the philosophical roots. But something very new and exciting is happening in the science of the Theory of Mind.

Robert Mason and Marcel Just, two neuroscientists who are on the verge of making mind-reading a reality, have found the region in the brain where Theory of Mind happens:

The ability to understand the world from the perspective of a protagonist is a critical component in comprehending a narrative. During such comprehension, readers often generate expectations about the actions of protagonists based on an understanding of the character’s intentions. We have proposed that this Theory of Mind processing is supported by a protagonist perspective cortical network.

I think the most interesting implications of the article relate to narrative, or story. Mason and Just are beginning to answer important questions about the mechanisms through which story works. There's a lot of neuroscience in the article, but here's the punch line: stories activate an entirely different, specialized network of neurons, in addition to the language processing centers of the brain.

When you tell someone a story, you engage more of their brain than when you use other methods of discourse, such as explanation. It turns out that the brain activates with a similar intensity when we watch a movie, when we listen to a story about a client, or when we wonder what the OctoMom was thinking.

The lesson for leaders: if you want to more fully engage your audience's brain, tell them a story. We've known for a long time that stories change behavior and attitude more efficiently than argument  or logic -- it's nice to see neuroscientists begin to explain why.