The Science of Storytelling, Part 2: Harnessing the Power of Patterns

This series explains the science that makes storytelling such a powerful form of communication. Part 2 explores how stories keep us engaged by triggering “pattern recognition” in our brains.

2, 4, 6, __

Rock, paper, __

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, __

More likely than not, as you read the sequences above, you instantly knew how to fill in the blank. That’s because our brains have a special propensity for recognizing patterns. As soon as we enter new environments or have new experiences, our brains search for similar information and experiences we’ve already stored in our memories. Recognizing familiar patterns helps us interpret situations quickly and respond appropriately.

Each time we recognize a pattern, the reward system of our brain releases a burst of dopamine, a chemical that creates feelings of pleasure or joy. This “reward” drives us to engage in behaviors that are advantageous to our survival.

Our brains have evolved to recognize patterns so we can respond quickly and correctly to new situations. For example, through encounters with lions our early ancestors learned to recognize the sound of a roar and associate it with danger. Every lion’s roar might sound a little different, but our ancestors couldn’t afford to stop and think about each encounter as a new experience. Their brains recognized the pattern and knew what to do when they heard something that sounded like a lion’s roar: Run!

Our brains also use pattern recognition to break down complicated and variable situations into simpler relationships, as when solving a complex math equation.

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Savvy communicators take advantage of this phenomenon by telling stories, which activate pattern recognition that can help people understand your cause and support your goals.

Stories make complex information easy to understand. Helping people understand complex issues can be challenging — especially when your goal is to transform systems, address deeply intertwined issues or create nuanced policy solutions.

The relationships between the many parts comprise the “pattern” you hope your audience will figure out. Crafting a chronological plot with one action leading to another places information into a sequence, which our brains easily recognize as a pattern. A story that uses specific people, problems and solutions to demonstrate how a complex issue plays out in the real world makes it easier for audiences to understand your cause.

For example, it would be difficult to explain to non-experts how highly complicated financial transactions led to the mortgage default crisis in 2008. A story of a homeowner who was pressured by a fast-talking broker into taking on an expensive mortgage — and later defaulted — puts this complex, abstract topic into human terms that people understand and relate to, right away.

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Stories that activate pattern recognition hold our attention. A well-made Hollywood thriller keeps us on the edge of our seat, and a surprising plot twist at the end can leave us shaken. This experience is pattern recognition in action: When we’re lost in the midst of a well-told story, our brain is triggered to look for patterns and we become desperate to determine what will happen next.

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You don’t need Hollywood-level productions to keep your audience interested: Presenting human characters who face compelling challenges will hold their attention. You can introduce suspense by describing initial solutions you tried that didn’t work out as planned, or moments when you realized the challenge was greater than expected.

To explore the power of patterns to craft your own stories, visit Hatch for Good — an online resource to help you create powerful stories for the greater good.

Read Part 1 of the Science of Storytelling series here.