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Storytelling, Memory and Ferdinand the Bull

Posted by Brett Smith on Thu, May 5, 2016

Ah those long-term memories...

Where the Wild Things Are and The Story of Ferdinand -  two books that I haven’t read in decades but remember with great clarity.  Why can I recall those books so clearly 30 years later, but struggle to remember what I ate for dinner last Sunday? Why can I remember the guitar solo note for note to Hotel California and all the lyrics, but can’t remember the emails I sent out yesterday?


This is a classic question we all wonder about, but in reality the answer is not so mysterious, at least when viewed from a scientific perspective.  In the last 30 years, science has taken a great leap forward in discovering how the brain functions and how memories are created and stored (or thrown out).

So, for those of us involved in the Learning and Development industry, how can we ensure that the information we are converting into digital learning modules ends up in the category of long-term memory, and not disposed of within moments of it being consumed?

This is the ongoing challenge.  Every customer wants to realize value and ROI from their eLearning courses, and a significant portion of that ROI is directly related to how much the learners actually remember after they have completed a course.

Enter the story.


Storytelling has been around for millennia as a way to convey information, instill values, explain concepts and perpetuate a culture.  The earliest cave painting on record dates back 40,000 years in Spain, while the earliest pictoral evidence of an actual story being recorded can be found in a series of cave paintings in France sometime between 15,000 and 13,000 BC.


 As a species, we live in world of stories, some good, some not so good, but our primary means of relating our experience to others is through a narrative of sorts. In fact, Jeremy Hsu, a renowned scientist and journalist for Scientific American found in 2008 that personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations. 

“Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”



So what is it about a well-crafted story that helps us remember better?

Well, as humans, we are wired (literally and physiologically) to always look for cause and effect relationships.  We experience life that way, a series of narratives that are broken up into smaller units of information where one thing leads to another. Our world is connected by these narratives  and our reality is experienced and expressed through them.  

So when we enter into a learning situation that leverages, as its learning platform, a glorified PowerPoint deck with a series of facts and data, it really serves as little more than a dislocated two-dimensional presentation of information with no relatable context or personal meaning.  This type of information goes right to short-term memory in our prefrontal cortex and is quickly discarded as useless.  Stories, on the other hand, use metaphors, emotion, personal connections, and visuals that all stimulate different parts of the brain which not only engage the learner but create lasting neural pathways and activity that consolidate the learning in long-term memory. In his book, “The Art of Changing the Brain,” Zull (2002) indicated that learning is deeper and more effective when we engage all parts of the brain. Stories are a useful vehicle for brain-based learning.

Furthermore, when story-driven learning is triggered in a post-learning context (check out our Blog on this topic next week!) then memories become even more consolidated and have an increasing chance of becoming long-term memories.

 In case you are interested, here is the science…

According to The Canadian Institutes of Health Research for a memory to be consolidated, it must pass through a hippocampal pathway multiple times. The route is hippocampus to mammillary bodies of the hypothalamus, to the anterior thalamic nucleus, to the cingulate cortex, to the entorhinal cortex and back to the hippocampus. The repetition through the hippocampal pathways prevents the breakdown of the memory.  If a memory is deemed as important then it will traverse this pathway and become a long-term memory.

An engaging story makes learning exciting. It captures attention and drives learner engagement. It helps learners attach meaning to prior knowledge which facilitates long-term memory storage.

Simply stated, a well-crafted story tends to elicit a meaningful response from the learner, thereby pushing it further up the hierarchy of important memories. The higher the ranking a memory receives, the more likely it is to become a long-term memory.  As creators of learning content, we must create meaning!

So stories are important, but what makes them memorable?

Definitely easier said than done, especially in the context of Learning & Development.  Let’s face it, it’s rare to create courses for a company that has, inherent in its learning curriculum, a burgeoning story akin to the Lord of the Rings or Rocky.  We are often dealing with dry material that deals with process design, product information, onboarding modules, etc., not an easy task. That being said, like a good movie, a good book or a good song, we should always endeavor to do the following when creating a good story for a learning module:

  1. Create an emotion
  2. Engender empathy by making it relatable
  3. Make connections between ideas
  4. Use metaphors and strong visuals
  5. Elicit action

These five pillars become possible when your writers and creative team have no constraints.  When fictional worlds and characters can be created for even the most mundane curriculum and when learning objectives are clearly articulated and tied back to an engaging narrative.

When I think back to The Story of Ferdinand and Where the Wild Things Are, this is what those stories did.  They attached themselves to something in me that was lasting.  Through their compelling narratives, strong visuals, use of metaphors (and perhaps the way it was told to me…), they became relatable and important, and as such, made their way through the ordered chaos of neurons and synapses to find their home as long term memories in my brain.

What are some examples of stories that you have used to create a meaningful learning experience? 


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Topics: Storytelling, Learning Journey

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