4 Ways Good Stories Move Us

What’s your favorite book and why? The questions are more than just a way to fill your online dating profile—they’re insights into how beloved stories push our psychological and neurological buttons. How does good writing grab you by the brain? My fellow QDT host, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, leads us through four things your brain relishes in a good story.

Ellen Hendriksen, Writing for
3-minute read
Episode #548

Element #1: Good Stories Engage the Senses

Your brain has specific gears for language processing—Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, for example, have long been identified as language-processing regions and Mignon talked about those regions in an episode a few months ago about aphasia.

But more recently, researchers have found that other areas of the brain can be stimulated by language, particularly sensory words. For instance, a 2012 study in the journal Brain and Language found that phrases that include descriptions of texture, like smooth talker, greasy politician, bubbly personality, crusty old man, or slick performance activated both language processing and—surprise!—sensory processing regions.

To get even more specific, according to a study in NeuroImage, reading words that evoke a sense of smell, like cinnamon or jasmine, activates both language-processing regions and scent-processing regions of the brain. Indeed, by using sensory language, compelling stories engage our brains without even a jasmine garland (or bulb of garlic) in sight.

Element #2: Good Stories Move Us Morally

Good stories move us emotionally, to be sure, but they also engage with our moral compass. For example, a study in the uber-prestigious journal Science demonstrated the power of stories on our moral psyches. Participants were asked to hand-copy a story told in the first person that recounted either an ethical act (helping a co-worker) or an unethical act (sabotaging a co-worker). Next, they were asked to rate the appeal of various products. Some of the products were related to cleansing, like toothpaste and soap, but others were unrelated, like batteries and candy bars. Researchers found that participants who transcribed the unethical story rated the cleansing products more highly than those who transcribed the ethical story. What’s more, both groups rated the appeal of the non-cleansing products the same.

What’s the connection between sabotage and soap? It’s called the Macbeth Effect, and shows that Shakespeare’s imaginings of Lady Macbeth’s fixation on washing away her guilty conscience (“Out, damned spot! Out, I say”) weren’t only the result of his literary genius, but also his deep mastery of the human tendency to equate moral and physical purity.


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, Writing for Grammar Girl

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