The effect stories have on our brain


This summer I was able to enjoy a truly wholesome holiday. After some slight hesitation, we decided to take a trip. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in La Douce France again, just like the year before. We agreed not to fall into the trap of repetition – why is it that trying to repeat an experience often leads to disappointment? – and decided to visit other camping spots than during our previous visit to our southern neighbors.

And so we did. A lovely atmosphere, warm sun weather and pretty soon we started reminiscing and digging up wonderful memories about our trips in the past.

A place of recognition

After a few days on the road, we came near a camping spot that we had immensely appreciated a little over a year ago. The spot was located near a small river, right next to an impressive bridge. For the first time in our lives we had seen the Hop, a rare species of bird. We thought about how much we enjoyed these experiences last time: the bustling boat traffic on the river, how it seemed like the weeping willows across the street were doing their best to complete the picturesque setting, the sweet smell of exotic plants as the proverbial icing on the cake.
We remembered the deafening silence that offered the perfect soundtrack for the crickets’ serenades. The magic was still palpable, more than a year after our last visit here and we came up with the same idea: we would make one exception to our “no repeating” rule…

The very next day, we drove across the bridge we had so blissfully admired once before. The level excitement kept increasing because we knew what awaited us! Our hearts were pounding with anticipation and we felt like happy little kids when we approached our dream spot. Hardly anything had changed and the campsite was still exactly as we remembered it – wonderful!


We set-up everything in almost the exact same spot as before and were ready to have the same experience. However, it soon became clear that things would turn out to be slightly different….

We had apparently forgotten about the train nearby that regularly came to disturb the peaceful environment. Annoying! There were cows in the meadow next to the camping grounds – were they there last time? – and one of these lovely girls deemed it necessary to moo non-stop, even at night. And where did all those mosquitoes come from? Their buzzing seemed to even drown out the chirping of the crickets. Not only were there no exotic birds to be seen, and the less favorable summer temperatures and circumstances, had caused the flowers to be blooming less impressively.

The impact of stories

Was this really the magical place we remembered? Of course it was. The magic had not changed, only our stories had done the job. They had magnified the emotion we experienced. After all, the power of stories is to erase the sharp edges of the negative elements so that they become soft silver linings.

Stories help us to remember, but above all they help us to process less pleasant events and to digest traumas and pains. Let’s not forget, however, as emotions experienced are magnified, stories set our brains in motion. By sharing our memories and telling stories we shape reality into ‘our reality’.

Our brain

So what exactly is the effect that stories have on our brain? They counteract the forgetting curve. Contrary to what was originally thought, our brain is not meant to be a storage space. Our brain cells have a hard time registering factual information and, according to research conducted by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1879, even after 20 minutes we only remember 40% of what we have heard. One day later, we have lost as much as 70% of the information that was acquired. Unless we have been emotionally affected and/or we are experiencing something that we can easily remember visually, for example because we are particularly interested in it. Knowing that, what conveys emotions and helps us to create a strong image of what happened? Indeed: stories!

Stories also help at work

Stories bring numbers to life, make goals tangible and make (theoretical) customers human. Even when a difficult situation arises, it is important that colleagues can tell their story.

The role of a confidential advisor can be invaluable here, but it can just as easily be another manager, someone from HR, another advisor or a colleague who holds space for listening. Consider it a compliment when people turn to you to tell their story!

We often see emotion show up in potential conflict situations. Do you remember that time when you thought you deserved that promotion, but your boss bluntly said no? Whatever emotion you experience at that moment, it causes you to remember the situation crystal clear. Stories magnify the emotion at hand, so situations in which you experienced a certain feeling stick to our ribs much more easily.

So, stories can have both a sharpening or softening effect, they can us help make sense of certain events, but they can also bring connection.