Here is a link to my latest post in LinkedIn.
- Humans love stories
- We are living in an era of diminished attention spans triggered by the rise of social media
- The storytelling device can be an important tool for science communicators
Ah… the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good story?
The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization. They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).
The human brain LOVES stories!
Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. We read them, we listen to them, we tell and re-tell them and we watch them (thank you, Hollywood). Stories – the good ones – have “stickability”.
Enter the fascinating work of Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book The Love Molecule. Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the ‘neuroscience of the narrative’. According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust. Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin (there are others too). The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy. Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.
Storytelling in the “Post-Literate” Era
While we human animals still love stories, our consumption of stories (and associated behaviors) has evolved over time. Our feet are now firmly entrenched in the “Post-Literate Era” and an age of rapidly diminishing attention spans:
“The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th Century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents’ generation, to web pages that are granted 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant, and ultimately to Twitter’s 140-character limit.” Killianbranding (2015)
The National Centre for Biotechnology Information reports that the average attention span for a human in 2000 was 12 seconds. By 2015, it was only 8.25 seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds.
The cognitive muscles that allow us to follow a story, complete a task or to learn and create are weakening. In fact, of the people that clicked on and started reading this blog entry, most only have read a third of the preceding text and several others have already moved onto things beyond this website.
The storytelling device and science communication
How we connect and interact as human beings has fundamentally changed with the introduction of the Internet. We no longer share our stories on cave walls. We do it on the fast-moving train of social media. Selfies and sound-bytes have become the proxy for social interaction and exchange. This has implications for science communication. Here’s the problem. Science is complex. Explaining science in absolutes runs counter to the culture (and methods) of science itself. Added to that, how we traditionally communicate the science is not how people want to hear about the science.
For example, if we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with (too many) facts or talking points, only the language processing part of our brain gets activated – the part where we translate words into meaning. Other than the unfortunate side effect of lulling a few people into peaceful slumber, nothing else happens beyond that particular decoding process.
Convey your message through a story format, however, and things transform considerably. Not only is the language processing part of the brain activated, but other areas as well; including those parts that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events of the story first-hand (Gonzales et al 2006)!
“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life…” “Your Brain on Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul, New York Times (March 17, 2012)
As scientists and science communicators, if we want to capture and retain the attention of our audience, we need to lead with the narrative. The process is more of an art than a science. The personality (likeability) of the storyteller comes into play, of course. How the story is told matters a great deal as well. Employing metaphors in an artful way can stimulate an audience’s senses; what brains see, hear, smell, taste and feel.
Stories are powerful communicators. A successful story will draw us in so far that, as Paul Zak states, we will find ourselves mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the storyteller or the character. The storytelling device is an important tool for the science communicator. In this world where we strive for immediate gratification, a science communicator needs to anchor new symbols around science. We need to create pictures with our words. In doing so, we transform facts and information into meaningful messages that stimulate the human brain and appeal to human values.
Who are your favorite (most effective) science communicators?
[This blog entry summarizes part of a seminar I gave at the University of California Davis on June 3rd, 2015, entitled: The Brave New World of Public Outreach: understanding human behavior, public opinion and the challenges for science communication. Thank you to the staff, faculty and students at the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for the kind invitation to present and engage in thoughtful discussion.]
- American Society of Human Genetics (2015). Communicating Science to the Public: a resource. Available online at: http://www.ashg.org/press/scientist_public.shtml
- Bearzi, Maddalena. (2013). Five Simple Steps for Communicating Science. National Geographic: Voices.
- Gonzales et al (2006). Reading cinnamon activates olfactory brain regions. NeuroImage. Volume 32, issue 2.
- Levi-Strauss, Claude. (1966). The Savage Mind. The Nature of Human Society series.
- Popova, Maria. (2012) The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc. http://www.brainpickings.org/2012/10/03/paul-zak-kirby-ferguson-storytelling/
- Scharf, Caleb. (2013). In Defense of Metaphors in Science Writing. Scientific American. July 9.
- Widrich, Leo. (2012). The Science of Storytelling: what listening to a story does to our brains. Buffersocial.
- Zak, Paul (2012). The Moral Molecule: The source of love and prosperity. Dutton Adult.
- Zak, Paul (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum: The Dana Foundation.
I constructed and posted a rather provocative meme the other day.
The meme had an image. It was graphic, shocking and sad. A photo of a starving child.
I shared the meme publicly on Twitter and privately with some of my colleagues, family and friends through email and Facebook. The meme resonated in different ways with different people. Responses came quickly, both publicly and privately. Some found the meme thought-provoking and effective:
“I don’t see anything wrong with it. There is a very real human cost to the delay of Golden Rice and some people need to be strongly reminded of that. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words.”
“I don’t see how using existing images without turning profit is wrong. Because it makes [people] uneasy to see what is daily life for half the world?”
Others, however, were shocked and offended:
“The photo was horrifying. It eclipsed the message. I didn’t see it. What did it say?”
“I saw your meme and it kind of bothered me. I agree with so much of what you have to say, but I don’t think anyone should use the specter of poverty to make a point.”
“I’m concerned with the objectification of poor people by first world people. I don’t care what the message is. [The meme] is offensive and exploitive to people who don’t have voices.”
“I’m personally not a fan of using these types of images for anything but e.g. specifically raising starvation awareness. If anyone can misconstrue the message, they will play the exploitation card.”
“It is shocking, sad and evocative. In the worst case it is a polar equivalent to the visuals used by the anti-biotech interests.”
Humans think in pictures. While words can go in one ear and out the other, images ‘stick.’ This is why memes are such effective visual communication tools in this day and age of decreasing attention spans. Memes come in the form of images or short videos and they can spread rapidly via the Internet. We see memes cycling through our social media feeds every day.
I learned a few things about memes through this interesting exercise:
- These kind of communication tools can be effective, if properly executed.
- Proper execution requires a pre-emptive well-thought-out overarching strategy with defined goals.
- Each individual meme needs to be structured around a well-articulated message.
- That message has to be paired with an appropriate image.
- If the image and message don’t connect in a meaningful way or if the image is “over the top” meaning may be lost.
Where do we draw those lines? What is “over the top”? Did I use rhetoric and an emotionally-charged image to frame an ethical issue with my meme? Am I just another example where ideology led a good person with good intentions to do a wicked thing?
Communicating in this information-rich world is tough. To make our communications more effective, (and I quote Made To Stick (by Heath and Heath)), “…we need to shift our thinking from What information do I need to convey? to What questions do I want my audience to ask?” For any idea (or message) to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. Humans are hard-wired to feel things for people, not abstract objects or ideas.
In my blog post of October 28th, I stated that there is no room in well-executed science for provocateurs. But is there room for a shocking and confrontational blend of images and rhetoric in order to draw First World attention to some of the world’s most dire problems, like hunger? As Steve Savage says in his blog post, Counting the Cost of the Anti-GMO Movement:
“There is a long growing list of environmental and health improvements that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement hadn’t been so effective… Some are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.”
Memes (highly controversial and inaccurate ones) continue to be an important tool in the anti-GMO toolbox. In response to that argument, my very good colleague and friend said:
“Cami, why sink to their level? We are smarter than that!” And another said:
“If this meme were to factor into the GMO debate, I think it would derail the discussion completely and not help the cause at all.”
Good points. Both of them. As is this comment by a Twitter friend:
“We need to respond to human suffering with compassion. Memes designed to prove the meme-makers point are not very compassionate.”
Are those of us that are trying to mitigate some of the damage done by the anti-GMO movement – those of us that want to see some the great technologies that we have in the First World move to where they are most needed in the Third World – being exploitative if we use these kind of memes to communicate our messages? If there are ‘boundaries’ that we need to adhere to, what are they? And how can we advocate for things like Golden Rice without using images of children?Epilogue: I admit, the meme was shocking. A disturbing image combined with a provocative message. I shared it to provoke ‘raw’ responses. And I got them. Most responses were highly critical. More than half that voiced opposition to the meme were close friends and family members. It would be fair to assume that they were shocked that I constructed it and I shared it as much as they were by the meme itself. For the record, if this meme had crossed my desktop I probably would never have shared it. I generally share ones with images of the Dos Equis Man with taglines about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Anyway, this was an interesting exercise and I am grateful for all of you that chimed in. Your feedback was supportive, critical, sometimes loud, often emotionally-charged – but always very insightful.Thank-you.
Sara McPhee-Knowles, a brilliant young scholar with the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy discusses expert and citizen/consumer perceptions of risk in a paper published on the Valgen website: http://www.valgen.ca/10372/af.ca/public/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Comparison…. She outlines the results of in-depth interviews and focus groups exploring public perceptions of risk with respect to biotechnology in food comparing and contrasting expert and lay perspectives. McPhee-Knowles results generated two dichotomies… “…some see biotechnology as a novel technology while others see it in its historical, scientific context (e.g. similar to using yeast yet more advanced)” (page 3). According to McPhee-Knowles, “…risk perception theory and practice has a potential impact on citizen behaviours and by extension on government decisions. Regulators inside government are working in a constrained world where public risk perceptions can exacerbate the likelihood of making Type I or Type II errors (i.e. approving an unsafe product or rejecting a safe product)…”Through this paper, McPhee-Knowles introduced me to a new theory. The Thomas Thoerem states that “…if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas, 1928 as cited in Merton, 1995: 380). Merton (1957, 1995)). This particular theory, in the context of McPhee-Knowles’ paper, reminded me of and prompted me to re-visit a book review I wrote a year or two back for the journal /Science and Public Policy.
In /The Myths of Technology: Innovation and Inequality/, Burnett, Senker and Walker edit and present a piece of literature on complex myths that develop around technology in the fields of ICT, nature, society and, relevant in this context, biotechnology. They explore the mythic ideas and ideals that shape society’s perceptions and expectations of technology. The editors assert that the “…boundaries between myth and knowledge are at times slippery…” (1). This edited edition offers Contributions from wide disciplinary perspectives and examine the boundaries between subjects and objects of technologies. “…[M]yths appear in all systems of thought serving civilizations and ordinary people in everyday life…” (4); they “offer characterizations and explanations of human life…” (6). This collection groups myths around two polarized perspectives of technology and attempts to offer a balanced perspective between these two:
1. technology is the answer to all of our social, economic and political problems
2. technology will be the downfall of millions and “…is the harbinger of the destruction of civilization…” (11)
Is mythmaking the precursor to defining situations as ‘real’ or is in fact an intermediary between definition and perceived consequences?