George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

The Neuroscience of Narrative and Memory

Delivering content—in any class—through a story has positive effects on your students’ information retention.
Illustration of a tree growing out of an open book; the leaves are icons that indicate academic subjects
Illustration of a tree growing out of an open book; the leaves are icons that indicate academic subjects
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If you’ve had the pleasure of reading bedtime books to young children, you’ve observed one of the reasons why narratives are so compelling. During their childhood, my daughters wanted to hear the same book, Goodnight Moon, over and over: Even after dozens of readings, they continued to excitedly predict what would be on the next page and to take great pleasure in being right.

That childhood desire of children—wanting to hear books read aloud and repeatedly requesting those few they know well enough to predict—encompasses powerful brain drives that become memory enhancers.

The experiences we have with narratives starting as young children establish supportive conditions in the brain for learning and remembering, based on a foundation of emotional connections to the experience of being read to or told stories. In addition, the familiarity of the narrative pattern becomes a strong memory-holding template.

Positive Emotions

Listening to stories during childhood is a pleasurable experience that the brain remembers and continues to seek throughout life. Strong emotional memory connections are intrinsic to children’s experiences of being read to or told stories. Often the memory is simply the cozy feeling of being snuggled in bed. Notably, though, even for children raised in tumultuous circumstances, memories of bedtime stories mean that things were relatively, or at least temporarily, calm.

Far beyond childhood, when one recalls being read to or told a story, there is a renewal of the sense of being cared for. That positive emotional state can resurface throughout one’s life when narratives are heard.

In addition, hearing the same book repeatedly allows the brain to seek its own intrinsic rewards. The brain’s response to making a choice or prediction that turns out to be correct is a release of dopamine, triggering a feeling of deep satisfaction and pleasure.

This dopamine-reward response is particularly generous in young children. Although it soon evolves to responding to real predictions—choices or answers that are not known for sure—during the bedtime story years, this prediction-reward response is activated even when the child knows with great certainty what is on the next page.

Frameworks for Memory Construction

As stories from childhood are linked to positive emotional experiences, they provide an insight into the patterning system by which memories are stored. Our brains seek and store memories based on patterns (repeated relationships between ideas). This system facilitates our interpreting the world—and all the new information we find throughout each day—based on prior experiences.

The four-step structure of narrative—beginning (Once upon a time...), problem, resolution, and ending (...and they all lived happily ever after)—forms a mental map onto which new information can be laid.

When that new information, whether from algebra or history, is presented in the familiar narrative form, the memory structure facilitates the brain’s retention of that information. With time that map expands to include narratives in which the ending is not “and they all lived happily ever after” but rather an opportunity for the student to explore or discover possible outcomes.

Sample Narratives for the Classroom

Algebra: “Maria did her chores all week and loved waking up on Saturday and getting her allowance. When she turned 13, her parents offered her a choice. She could change to a monthly allowance of $100, or have the amount of money accumulated in a month if she started with 1 penny on day one that was doubled each day for the 30 days. Excited to get a sum as large as $100, Maria chose that. What would you choose?”

After students have a chance to make their choices and see the surprising result of the doubling—a payment of $5,368,709.12—they are ready to follow the narrative into exponents.

Science: “There was a guy, call him Archie, who wanted to know why the level of water in his bathtub rose so that it sometimes overflowed when he got into the tub. It’s said that he tried lots of experiments that didn’t work, but one day he figured it out and said, ‘Eureka!’”

You can use the story of Archimedes to offer students the same challenge—figure out why the water level in a cup goes up when they place a coin on a poker chip floating in the water and then down when they drop the coin to the bottom.

History: “We love to celebrate advances in flying machines, including spaceships. But sometimes something happens to make everyone worry about the safety of those on the craft.”

Use primary news sources to explore with students the beginning and middle of stories like the Hindenburg disaster or the flight of Apollo 13. Look at news reports about rigid airships or the space program and about how each trip was covered up to the point when things started to go wrong. Then ask for predictions about how things turned out, before going on to reveal the end of each story.

Weaving learning into a story makes learning more interesting, activates the brain’s positive emotional state, and hooks the information into a strong memory template. The memory then becomes more durable as the learning follows the narrative pattern through sequences connected to a theme, time flow, or actions directed toward solving a problem or reaching a known goal.

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Tracy Schiffmann's picture
Tracy Schiffmann
Using brain science to equip teachers of trauma-impacted adult learners to touch hearts, change minds and transform behavior

Thanks for this great article! This works with adult learners too. I sometimes have reluctant learners who feel attending training is a waste of their time. Because I never want to waste another educator's time, I use stories to quickly show that I understand where they are coming from. I frequently begin with three, true, topic-related stories and tell them up to their crisis point. In the most critical opening minutes in which I'm trying to develop rapport and gain buy-in, I share my hair-rising stories and I can literally watch people decide to stay in the room with me. They put their phones down, lean forward, nod, smile or look surprised. After sharing each story to the crisis point, I ask if they can relate. Disengagement becomes engagement and then I ask them to jot down the one topic-related problem that came to mind for them during the story, that they'd like to resolve by the end of the training. Folks write that down on a post-it note and then we move into strategies. I may ask them if any strategy could be applied to any of our stories and good discussion ensues. Eventually I tell the end of the stories and ask them to identify the strategies I used. I may even give them a scoring guide and ask them to evaluate whether I used the strategies or not. I ask for their input on other strategies that could have been used, places where I could have done something different, or even places where I may have missed an opportunity to use a strategy. We finish with them applying strategies of their choosing to the problem they wrote down. I invite them to share out in pairs or small groups . This is frequently followed by an engaged Q and A in which they share their ah ha's and plans for handling their issue differently. Stories are my go-to strategy, especially with initially reluctant learners.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

These are great expanded opportunities for empowerment and engagement with narratives. Thanks for sharing!

Shannon Trippy's picture

Thanks for the insightful article, Judy Willis. I found the section about how narratives are a "framework for memory construction" especially interesting. When I think back to great teachers that I have had over the years, I think what many of them had in common is that they were good storytellers. As an educator, I can apply the info in the article to my classroom by adding in a narrative to introduce a unit or help students make connections.

Shannon Trippy's picture

Thank you for sharing, Tracy Schiffmann! I agree that adult audiences can disengaged at a training or meeting, especially with our phones. I do appreciate the presenter/trainer who is charismatic and engages with good stories. I think narratives help people store main concepts in long term memory because they are interesting and cause a person to actively listen.

Crystal89's picture

Yes, I would also like to read more about this. As library media specialists, we read stories to teach concepts to the young -- stories about book care and how to use the library. As teachers, we share stories about what has happened to people who have made mistakes using social media or broken copyright or plagiarism rules. The students remember these. But it occurs to me that narrative could be used in other areas of my content as well. Let's pursue more research on this, as well as other ways to use fictional stories and real-life examples.

An Li's picture

This sounds very much like TPRS/CI approaches to language learning. For those of us who are already doing TPRS/CI, this is very intuitive and it is also a lot of fun to teach and learn this way. And I can see how it can be beneficial to other subject areas. We forget that originally this is how transfer of knowledge was done, way before the printing press and technology. It makes sense.

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