The power of storytelling…

human mind

  • 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.

storyline

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)postliterate

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.

goldfish

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.

selfiessoundbytes.jpg

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.

metaphor

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.]

Select References/Resources:

Fast ‘Information’ Nation? The social costs of our highly connected world

We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.

fastinfonation1

Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:

  • Facebook has 1.4 billion monthly active users  and records almost 400,000 “likes” per minute
  • Twitter and Instagram each have almost 300 million monthly active users
  • Instagrammers share 70 million photos and videos everyday
  • There are an estimated 350,000 tweets posted per minute
  • YouTube reaches more U.S. adults (ages 18-34) than cable networks
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn

Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative.  It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information.  The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.

“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?

While our new ‘meme’ culture  has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.

Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage.  I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information.  The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person.  This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs.  People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.

The Snowball Effect

So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it.  But others do.  There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.

snowball1

Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).

With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now.  According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic.  ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.

badstuff

 

‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?

So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but there are some basic principles that we can apply. Robert Harris (2015) provides a great “CARS” check list (credibility, accuracy, reliability and support) for evaluating internet sources. I summarize Harris’ points below and add a few of my own for context and clarity:

  • “C” Credibility:
    • What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign)
    • Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words?
    • If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
    • Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information?
  • “A” Accuracy:
    • Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates?
    • Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading.
  • “R” Reliability:
    • Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate?
    • Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven”
    • Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs  “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
  • “S” Support:
    • Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
    • Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.

Monitoring Your Information Diet

We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).

But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.

It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.

 “The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb

[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]

*descriptive statistics sourced from JeffBullas.com

Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:

 

Key references:

Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.

Harris, Robert (2015). Evaluating Internet Research Sources.  Virtual Salt. (previous versions dated: 2013, 2010, 2007)

Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of FriendshipThe New Yorker. October 7.

Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6

Social media strategy is a must for science advocates

Launching a social media strategy to advocate for science: is GE3LS* missing the boat?

January 20, 2011

Lackes, et al., (2009), finds that few scientists use social media tools, significantly lagging the adoption rates for both business and personal use. Scientific research is essentially a communication-driven process where many of its contributors, stakeholders and consumers are part of what we might refer to as “Generation F” (the ‘Facebook’ generation). The widespread adoption of social media tools to communicate and share information has significantly changed the science-based research landscape. It’s not enough to merely sit in our labs, closed off from the world. Being memorable, as an organization or entity, is crucial in this Web 2.0 world where we are bombarded daily by millions of sound bytes.  Further complicating the matter for science and science advocates is the fact that NGOs, INGOs and other interest groups have been very proficient in taking up Internet-based communication tools to reach entirely new audiences.  As a result they are able to quickly build coalitions and mobilize the public around specific issues of interest at relatively low marginal costs (Ryan 2010).

For example, we conducted a poll at the annual VALGEN meetings in Banff in January 2010. Of the 28 scientists in the room, only 58.3% stated that they used social media tools and only 36.9% of THOSE used social media for professional purposes (professional networking, recruitment, sharing/accessing knowledge).

This lag in the adoption of social media strategies represents significant costs to both scientific and social science research agendas. For society, scientific progress far outpaces our capacity as stakeholders to adopt or understand scientific or technological developments. Thus, communication – through the integration of optimal social media strategies – becomes the currency for bridging connections between the spheres of science, technology and society.

Is GE3LS missing an opportunity here?  Do we need to formally incorporate social media strategies into our research agendas to support and advocate for science?

                                              

Lackes, R., M. Siepermann and E. Frank. (2009). “Social networks as an approach to the enhancement of collaboration among scientists.” International Journal of Web-based Communities. Volume 5, Number 4.  Pps 577-592. 

Ryan, C. D. (2010).  “Framing, Exploring and Understanding Online Anti-Technology Advocacy Networks.” Working paper. Available online at: http://doccami.posterous.com/online-anti-technology-advocacy-networks-netw. Accessed on: January 17, 2011.

 

*GE3LS is the acronym that stands for genomics and its related ethical, economic, environmental, legal and social aspects. GE3LS research complements genomics research by addressing questions that lie at the interface between science and society. 

http://www.genomecanada.ca/en/ge3ls/

 

 

My Twitter life is complete!

I am, at this very moment, experiencing the ‘academic high’.  It doesn’t come along very often.  But when it does, it is akin to a runner’s high (something that, sadly, I have experienced only once or twice). 

Today, I am trying to immerse myself into a re-write of an existing article for another publication – a common exercise in the academic world. Do the research, write up the results and then ‘spin it’ (the story) as many ways as you can.  Multiply your academic currency!  

In attempting this seemingly rudimentary task today, two words come to mind: “writer” and “block”.  Actually, now that I think of it, that’s not accurate.  This particular re-write is a merger between two existing documents.  So, the word of this less-than-productive day is more apt to be: “lazy”. When I feel “lazy” (which doesn’t happen very often ’cause I am a most dedicated, disciplined academic researcher ;o) ), I get distracted.  Working from home 80% of the time doesn’t help – there are dogs to play with, horses to pet, laundry to do (you get the picture).  Being tied to the computer and the Internet, which comprises 99.5% of my working day, doesn’t help.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn… etc. are the biggest distractions.

So what does one do when one can’t get motivated for a re-write?  One Twitters it or changes one’s FB status to reflect it, hoping to incite pity from colleagues (who are also easily distracted by social media).

My original Twitter message which contains a link to my blog and the article for re-write: 

Richardflo

Take note of last “@” in the Twitter message.  Richard Florida (http://www.creativeclass.com) is the ‘creative class’ guru.  He is like the “Dalai Lama” of city/creative/urban focused academic research.  This, to some, may be a bit of an overstatement, but I have a deep respect for the man.  He is the author of the books “Who’s Your City?”, “The Flight of the Creative Class” and “The Rise of the Creative Class” to name a few.  Florida is currently affiliated with the University of Toronto and I am pleased to say that I have been, on one or two occasions, in the same room as him. I once attempted to sidle up to the man, to politely introduce myself and initiate an intellectually stimulating conversation about the nature of ‘the creative’ and how we employ the term in the Calgary CMA setting.  Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, I had a bit too much of the ‘red stuff’. While imbibing at a conference dinner augmented my confidence and served to enhance my ‘moxy’ and intellectual acumen (or so I thought), it did absolutely nothing for my coordination. My wine-induced self-assurance plummeted to sea level when I collided with a chair and twisted my ankle [academic down!]. I hung my head and hobbled off to my hotel room to nurse my pride and my ankle. That was the closest I ever came to talking to Richard Florida.      

So, here is where the ‘academic high’ comes in.  Twitter message (see above) is sent.  Almost immediately, a new message from Richard Florida is posted in my timeline stream:
Richardflo1
AAAAAAAAAAAcccckkkkkk!  My eigenvector measure just went up!

Of course, I had to follow that up with:
Richardflo2
I just checked my Twitter stream of @DocCamiRyan ‘mentions’…and… Yes! Florida’s re-tweet has been re-tweeted!

Hellooooo, higher ‘social media’ centrality measure!