People primarily know the SXSW Conference, which takes place annually in Austin, Texas, for its film and music festivals. But, it also delves deeply into related and larger cultural and scientific subjects, as was the case with the presentation “This is Your Brain On Story: Neuroscience+The Moth.”
As a screenwriter, I am drawn to talks that explore the nature of storytelling. It was not until I was standing in line in the Austin Convention Center that I discovered what “The Moth” was. I shared with the person next to me in line that I was surprised by the long line. She explained that The Moth was an extremely popular program on radio and online.
A radio show drawing a crowd? Had I stepped through a time portal back to the 1930s? The speakers, Catherine Burns, Artistic Director for The Moth, and Alexander Huth, from Gallant Laboratory at UC Berkeley, quickly dissuaded me of that idea as they explained this unique pairing of neuroscience and radio.
Huth, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, soon to be a professor at University of Texas, Austin, explained how he and his colleagues had been using MRI scans to study the effect of language on the brain. For quite some time they had been reading single words to subjects to see what part of the brains lit up in response to which words.
Burns explained that The Moth began on a back porch in Georgia, where its founder, novelist/poet George Dawes Green, would tell stories with a small group of friends on his porch. There was a hole in the screen on the porch which let in moths which were attracted to the light, so the group began referring to themselves as “the moths.”
When Green moved to New York City, he started a new story telling group in his living room. Word got out and soon it moved to cafes, clubs, and larger venues, and, ultimately to radio.
Huth said that his experiments were having minimal success, so they thought about trying stories.
“We went thru a few iterations of different stories,” he said. “We would read stories. We varied the pace. We tried reading them at one word per second for tracking purposes,” he said. “Have you ever been so board its painful?”
Then someone turned them on to The Moth.
“When we began playing stories from The Moth and scanning people while they listened to them,” Huth said, “we saw a high amount of brain engaged. All kinds of words elicited responses in different parts of the brain.”
Burns said that The Moth stories are all based on something that is emotionally riveting for the storyteller. “We ask people to find a story from their life that means something to them. What are the stakes? Why does this person or event in their life have meaning?”
She continued, “But we never want these stories to sound like an after school special. There must be some meaning in your life that you’re sharing with the audience. Who are you at the beginning of the story and who are you at the end? It sounds harsh, but then we ask, ‘Why should we care?’”
“We take a two-hour conversation and turn it into 10 bullet points,” she said, ”then an outline, and then have them tell me the story again several times to get the beats the down.”
The stories get boiled down to ten to fifteen minutes.
Burns explained, “The only way you can bomb at The Moth is not to be natural. We have speakers memorize their first line and their last line. The rest is telling the story. People want speakers to be real in front of them.”
They are not scientists at The Moth, but they made a discovery, too. “One of our revelations,” Burns said, “was that we had to have people in front of an audience, not just telling a story into a microphone. There is something that happens when you are telling a story in front of an audience, when you see people nodding and reacting. You need to be able to hear the sound of the audience leaning in.”
Huth agreed and cited the importance of non-verbal elements for listeners, too. “Take President Trump’s speaking,” he said. “If you read what he says, it’s schmoo – word salad. But, when you see him speak, it holds together. The intonation, the gestures, there is extra information there.”
Huth pointed out that part of the goal of the Berkeley project was to try to build models which would predict how the brain would respond to new words and stories. They are not there yet.
What they have discovered according to Huth was that there is a network of brain areas that become more active when you are not doing a task. “These turn off when you are pushing buttons,” he said. “They turn on when you are involved in a train of thought — your internal narration — when your brain is wandering. They also respond strongly when listing to a narrative story. Also, the response is consistent in ways that are fascinating. These parts of the brain run your internal narrative, but can also be taken over by an external narrative. I love that. It’s not scientific, but I do think that requires a really good story.”
Burns praised Huth’s work. “You are part neuroscientist and part artist, Alex,” she said.
Huth continued, “It’s kind of an inside baseball thing, but people are taught that the left and right hemispheres of the brain do different things. That’s just not the thing that we see here. There are differences between hemispheres, but not where one is stronger than the other.”
Burns chimed in, “You’re too modest, Alex. You busted up that right-brain-left-brain thing.”
Huth did admit to discovering things about the pre-frontal cortex.
He said, “The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that’s undergone the biggest change in size in humans compared to other animals. Some people think it’s mystery meat with no purpose. We have really shown strongly that that is definitely not the case, that it is organized into areas that respond to places and people and emotional states, and the responses are super-consistently organized across different people.”
Burns and Hurth showed slides that demonstrated the consistency of how different brains responded to a story.
Burns said, “It’s so cool that in the person telling the story, the brain lights up in the same way as people who are listening to the story.”
Huth pointed out, “The story teller brain is usually slightly ahead of the listeners, but other times listeners’ brains are ahead of the teller.”
Burns summed up by encouraging people to work on their story telling skills, and, of course, to listen to The Moth radio show and podcast. “Pay attention,” she suggested, “to the stories that you repeat to your friends, especially the ones that your friends say ‘Hey, tell that story about such and such’. Those are the good ones.”