The Power of Visualness


When you tell a story, your listener’s brain responds automatically. They don’t have a choice. You're literally hijacking their limbic system and making them pay attention.

When a listener hears a story, the brain automatically conjures a visual, sensory, and experiential simulation so vivid that the listener can't help but visualize it. Suddenly the reel is playing on the projector, and they see, smell, and experience the story as if it were actually happening to them. 

Research using fMRI scans reveals that when the brain receives information, only two brain regions are activated: Broca's area, which is the part of the brain that takes in language, and Wernicke's area, which processes language into meaning. 

Storytelling is different. When a listener hears a story, a variety of brain regions are activated simultaneously. 


The visual cortex. The part of the brain that's connected to your eyes. If I tell you that I was walking in the forest and thought I saw a figure moving through the trees, your visual cortex activates exactly as it does when you actually see something. 

The auditory cortex. If I then tell you that it started raining and I could hear the pitter-patter of raindrops hitting my tent, your auditory cortex activates the same as if you heard the sound yourself. 

The olfactory cortex. If I tell you I could smell the sharp smell of woodsmoke, mixed with a kind of damp smell as the raindrops landed in the glowing embers, you're going to imagine that smell, and there will be activation in your olfactory cortex. 

The gustatory cortex. If I tell you we roasted marshmallows and made s'mores, there will be activation in your gustatory cortex as if you're actually tasting the melted chocolate and toasted sugar

The somatosensory cortex. If I tell you I began to shiver as the wet grass chilled my toes through my flip flops, there will be activation in your somatosensory cortex, as if the cold grass is tickling your own feet. 


The motor cortex. If I tell you I got nervous and started to jog, there will be activation in your motor cortex, the part of your brain that coordinates the body's movements, exactly as if you were really running yourself. 

What this means is that the brain is simulating reality in the sensory cortex. Your brain, in other words, doesn't distinguish between hearing a story about an experience and actually experiencing it. That’s is why a story is the next best thing to actual experience. And that’s why storytelling is so persuasive.