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Why are stories so powerful? Insights from the psychology of memory

After the amazing response my last post received, I couldn’t help but think about why this idea, the idea that academic writers can learn something from fiction writers, resonated so strongly with so many people. While this definitely deserves a discussion in its own right (Skip to the main discussion below by clicking here), there were also quite a few people who seemed to fundamentally disagree with my thesis. More than one person thought that “No, we academics do not need to and should no tell stories”. Some common notions were that requiring academics to be storytellers would:

1) Make publishing even harder

2) Distort science

3) Make no sense, because reading enjoyment does not matter for impact

These are just some of the examples, although the notions themselves were shared by other people as well.

First, let’s get this out of the way – the most important aspect of any scientific publication should be clarity. The purpose of scientific writing is to inform, not to entertain. Without a clear, succinct and accurate presentation, no story is worth publishing in science.

That being said, whether we like it or not, we are telling stories in our scientific writing. An academic paper is a story about data, about what we have learned from it. The only question is whether we are conscious of that and whether we are telling the story well.

More engaging articles are likely to be read and shared with peers, and are ultimately more influential as a result. While it is hopeful to think that once published, a paper is “out there” and that it should affect and influence other researchers, the simple truth is that more often than not a scientific paper dies a quiet death. “Sleeping beuaty” papers that present fundamentally important ideas, but lay dormant for decades before being rediscovered, is a more common scenario then people imagine. Finally, as this reddit user noted in response to my comment, most papers have very little impact (though he probably meant “the mode”, rather than the “median”, which is also not 0, but it is pretty close):

It is not outrageously unconceivable to think that papers centered around a good story are likely to be more influential. In fact, in climate science articles that have more narrative abstracts are more influential and are cited more often.

Why would having a good story make an article more impactful?

As someone who studies memory, I think that the key lies in the constructive nature of human memory (and despite the insistance of some of my friends that I am a robot, scientists are human too).

Most people imagine that memory works like a video camera – it dutifully records everything that you read, see and experience. We believe that when we close our eyes and mentally replay the things that happened to us, we are reexperiencing the past as it truly happened. Sure, our memories often fail us and we are prone to forget important details even about things we care about, but still, the prevailing notion is that, for the most part, what we do remember is an accurate portrayal of the world.

Unfortunately, psychological scientists have been busting that notion for years. Rather than being a playback of our true experiences, remembering is more akin to solving a puzzle without the picture on the box to guide us. It consists of innumerable pieces, patches of experiences, that get melted together and then get reconstructed, recombined, and repackaged on the spot as we need them. Memory researchers have observed these phenomena for years, both in the lab and in the real world, and they are often the topic of public discussion. In the words of Sir Frederick Bartlett, one of the pioneers of the field:

Remembering is not a completely independent function, entirely distinct from perceiving, imaging, or even from constructive thinking, but it has intimate relations with them all… One’s memory of an event reflects a blend of information contained in specific traces encoded at the time it occurred, plus inferences based on knowledge, expectations, beliefs, and attitudes derived from other sources.Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology

What does all of this have to do with how stories affect scientific impact? Turns out, story structure is one of the most dominant organizational principles of our memories. Stories are the very scaffolding around which our memories are built. Stories are the backbone and the flesh of our experiences.

One of Bartlett’s own studies is an execellent example of this principle in practice. How well do you think you would be able to remember a Native American folktale? Bartlett asked British participants to remember a story called “The War of the Ghosts”, a Native American folktale with an unusual for western fiction structure and narrative. Over the course of days, month and years, Bartlett asked them to repeatedly recall the story. The result? Every repetition made the story more and more distorted, but the distortion wasn’t random. People retold the tale in a way that was more and more consistent with their expectations and previous knowledge. Without realizing, they omitted details that did not seem important and distorted the structure to fit western expectations of narrative.

Aside from the ability to frame our memories, recognizing a familiar narrative helps us remember seemingly disjointed information. One of my favorite examples is a classic study done by Bransford and Johnson in 1972. Before I describe it, read the following passage and try to think, first, whether you have any idea what it is about, and second, whether you will be likely to remember it:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important bu complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell, After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

Are you completely lost? What if I told you that it describes the process of doing laundry and I ask you to read it again? How about now? Bransford and Johnson asked three groups of people to listen to the passage above, and to remember it for later. The first group was not told anything about it, and were completely lost and their memory of the passage was very poor. Another group was told beforehand, that the passage they will hear concerns laundry. They were able to remember twice as many details from the passage as the control group did! Even though both were given exactly the same informaiton in the passage itself, just knowing that it relates to something familiar such as laundry, allowed one group to bring that schema into mind, and use it to help them comprehend and remember what they were listening to.

The ability of familiar stories, schemas and narratives to distort and organize our memories, is not only a fascinating aspect of the workings of the human mind. It also likely plays a role in comprehending and remembering the articles we read, be they scientific or not. I would argue, that articles written with this in mind, with the goal of presenting a coherent story that fits into a narrative structure familiar to many people, would be easier to remember. And, after all, you cannot cite and be influenced by something you do not remember.

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