Story Influence Theory by Kendall Haven (DARPA)

The Story Influence Theory says a lot about humanity's struggle with the truth. We evolved from prehistoric hominids living in caves to contemporary humans boasting an Anthropocene Age. Yet, we've done it with a brain that's more prehistoric than contemporary. As tool-making animals, we've learned many skills necessary for our survival, but it is the ability to influence people that is probably one of the most sought out skills in life and business.

To change someone's thinking, values and belief system is a power matched by none other. Conversely, the ability to prevent someone from swaying you is equally powerful too. Everything from commercials, conspiracy theories or bigoted ideas can shift your perception into faulty ranges. We're vulnerable creatures, we humans. We're easy to lie to. We're easy to influence. The herd mentality or group think comes too naturally for us. Decades ago, scientists tried to figure how our thinking compared to our storytelling process. They investigated what got our attention, what makes us emotional and what influences us to act in ways not always to our liking. They found the answer: stories. Humanity sees the world like storytime.

Stanford Lecture on Stories and Cognition


This blog summarizes Stanford YouTube's lecture called, Your Brain on Story. The key lecturer is Kendall Haven whose research on Story Influence Theory shows how stories influence our perception of ourselves and reality. His research was funded by the U.S. Department of Defence. This lecture was recorded at the Standford MediX seminar, Science Storytelling & the Power of Participation.

DARPA's Project on Storytelling


Source: CentralAuckland (WikiCommons)
Once upon a time, the U.S. Department of Defense (DARPA) hired a team of researchers, including Kendall Haven, to figure out how the brain processed stories. This groundbreaking work applied cognitive science to 1500 years of literary research. The results were nothing short of outstanding. Researchers discovered that we process our lives in the form of storytelling. To make it even more interesting, they realized this process also meant we regularly shut down our critical thinking and deliberately distort facts to tell ourselves a more plausible story. That's right. As humans beings, we lie to ourselves every day. Worse yet, it's programmed into our brains.

For 21st century humans, the ramifications are epic. The storytelling brain isn't something we can escape from. Despite our advancements, we can't change the fact that we will always fictionalize at least a portion of our experience. We're literally spinning stories and distorting the facts to fit what makes sense to us. It can't be helped. We have, what Kendall Haven calls, the "Make Sense Protocol". We're literally self-creating events into stories that we find plausible according to our current belief or value system. Moreso, a believable story is one that contains four basic ingredients that would trigger anyone into believing the tale.

This storytelling capacity - and its influence - can be used to sell products, presidential candidates and conspiracy theories. We're constantly being fed them through media of all kinds. These stories deliberately leave out information so as to a prescribed world view. We might think we need a new car, party candidate or career, but much of that comes from influencers tweaking our brains through storytelling. Haven refers to this brain matter as the Neural Story Net.

You're Not the Exception


You may think that you're better than the rest, but you're not. Stories are clouding your judgement just like the rest of us. But deep down, you already know that's not true. You can't purge yourself of stories either in your real life or fictional one. All that you can do is aim for a more positive, healthy story that includes who we are rather than what others want us to be.

In Summary...


This blog started out with the emotion of fear. Knowing that engagement was more important and that mere data doesn't attract readers, the blog started with a need for caution, to protect ourselves from deception. Perhaps the times call for caution. Perhaps there is concern over people's choices nowadays. Perhaps one has witnessed how storytelling is playing the Pied Piper and leading the community to a bad place.

Whatever the case would be, these storytelling principles could help you discover more about yourself or connect with others through any media. Just remember, your brain is telling you a story that makes sense to you and, in the process, omitting data that doesn't fit in. That data is where you'll make a new discovery about yourself, your work and the world you live in.

This is your brain on story. You may not be able to escape it. But if you can figure out which tale you're telling, you just might become the best-selling author of your own life. Good luck.



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