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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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All scientists should be storytellers

No one likes reading academic papers. Deep down even scientists hate reading academic prose. Aside from the rare gems now and again, academic prose is dry, terse and quite convoluted. This state of affairs is not surprising to anyone – it is so widespread that we have grown to expect bad prose and stumbling upon good writing in science feels like a slap in the face. It energizes and wakes us up. Whatever you may think of academics like Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, Steven Pinker or Douglas Hofstadter, there is no denying that they have the uncanny ability to pierce with their words. Just look at some of the examples below and tell me they don’t intrigue the hell out of you.

Fodor, for example, entices the readers of his Precis to the Modularity of Mind (1985) with the following opening paragraph:

Everybody knows that something is wrong. But it is uniquely the achievement of contemporary philosophy – indeed, it is uniquely the achievement of contemporary analytical philosophy – to have figured out just what it is. What is wrong is that not enough distinctions are being made. If only we made all the distinctions that there are, then we should all be as happy as kings. (Kings are notoriously very happy).

Similarly, you can’t help but wonder what Hofstadter’s arguments will be when he makes a statement such as:

Analogy is the very blue of the sky of cognition. It is the talent so fundamental that it fuels our minds. [..] Is it irrational, subjective and concrete? Yes indeed, but it is also the underpinning of rationality, objectivity and abstraction. Analogy is not a rare luxury of thought or an exotic, remote corner of cognition. Analogy is the entire transport system of thought, including motorways, roads and trails; it pervades thinking, from throwaway remarks to deep scientific and artistic insights. All along the spectrum, analogy lets us see the new in terms of the familiar. It guides us in learning new concepts, solving mathematical problems, dealing with interpersonal conflicts and making political decisions.
– The Forgotten Fuel of our Minds, 2013

Why are examples such as these so few and far in between? Why are academics, who live and breathe writing, so notoriously bad at it?

In his recent essay, Why Academics Stink at Writing, Steven Pinker suggests that it has nothing to do with a conscious desire to be obtuse in order to put meaningless content behind a veil of jargon. Or with the fact that academic journals and reviewers expect papers to be written in what he calls academese. Nor does academese spring from the fundamental abstractness and complexity of the subjects we study. At what then, can we point our fingers to, as the agent that poisons academic writing?

The trap of self-conscious writing.

One problem with academics is that when it comes to writing, they are like a ship-wreck survivor standing on two planks in the water that are moving in different directions. Academics are torn between satisfying two different purposes when they write – one is to inform their readers of novel data or ideas. At the same time, however, academics agonize over how they will be perceived in the eyes of their colleagues. Will they be thought of as careful, knowledgeable, creative and analytic? Or will they be dismissed as hacks who go beyond the data in making conclusions, who disregard their colleagues’ work, however remotely related, as people who are way too confident for their own good?

Pinker sees this trap of self-conscious writing as one of the fundamental causes of bad writing. It leads to metadiscourse (e.g. “This article is organized as follows”), to using vacuous qualifying phrases (e.g. almost, quite, in part), nominalizations where verbs would suffice (e.g. “The affirmation of the current hypothesis by the data…”), etc.

But even if one solves all of these local problems, academic prose might become easier to read, but wouldn’t necessarily become any more engaging. More often than not, academic papers lack spice, they lack a compelling story.

We should all be storytellers.

Why do people enjoy reading fiction? I’m sure there will be as many different answers as there are readers and writers, but I believe that the cornerstone of all is good storytelling. Even the most fascinating characters or the most beautiful prose can be empty shells when they are built around bad, misdirected, and unsatisfying stories. Lolita, for all its beauty and charm, is one unbearably boring book (don’t crucify me, please!).

Most articles in science lack a compelling story. Data by itself is meaningless, and yet, most academics, including me, often treat it as self-explanatory, as something that should enlighten readers by its sheer awesomeness. But we don’t care about data. We don’t care about numbers. Numbers are just tools to describe the world.

Scientist care, or at least they should, about what those numbers can tell us about the fundamental properties of reality, the reality of the natural world, of our minds, and of the culture our species has produced. And this is fundamentally a storytelling issue – what does the data tell us about that specific aspect of the world? How did it come to be the way it is, how does it work, and how can we fix it, if it is broken? How do I, as a scientist, share that story with my peers and with the public?

Jeffrey McDonnell, in a paper published in Nature a few days ago, deals with exactly this issue. While above I have treated it as a problem for readability, he aptly recognizes that the lack of storytelling ability is what fundamentally makes writing a challenge for many academics. He uses a storytelling approach to help him and his students write better, clearer and more engaging academic papers:

Each of my group’s papers now starts with a storyboard session at a whiteboard. I pretend to be a big-time Hollywood producer and ask the Ph.D. student or postdoc to play the role of would-be movie director pitching a new movie to me. Their pitch must answer three questions: What is the status quo? What is wrong with the status quo? How does this new paper go beyond the status quo?

This approach helps frame the story and place key figures and technical findings in context. Balancing each of the status quo elements is a great way to set up the introduction—often the toughest section for early-career scientists to write—and to lead the reader to the research questions or hypotheses.

I myself, realized that this is the way to go about three years ago, when I was struggling to write one of my first papers. I believed I had something important to say, but I found that I have no idea how to stay it – I became paralyzed every time I stared at the cursor blinking on the empty page.

My breakthrough occurred, similarly to McDonnell’s, when I realized I should start asking those precise questions – what is my data telling me? Not what have I found, but what does it meanWhat is the main conflict that my data resolves? How do I build up that conflict in a way that makes the reader ache for the resolution?

I picked up those techniques not from anyone I know, or from a course on academic writing, but from a book on writing fiction, where story is king and reigns supreme. I am far from being any good at it, and I often fall back on bad habits, but I’m constantly trying to improve.

The problem is, in STEM and in the social sciences, we rarely teach writing in undergrad or grad school. Rather, it is expected that writing is something students will pick up on their own as they go, as they read more and more. Given that the papers they read suffer from all the vices of academese, this expectation is unrealistic. We need to teach ourselves, our peers, and our students, how to write better stories, because stories do not tell themselves, and data is impotent when buried in bad writing.

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