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What’s your corporate story?


It’s widely accepted now that the culture of an organisation is pretty important.  It underpins all of the behaviours that exist within a company.  In a broad sense, it’s kind of the behaviours exhibited when managers aren’t around to dictate, observe and cajole.

Stories play a massive part in our lives, and have been used for most of humanities existence on the planet to communicate ideas and philosophies.  Their role in the workplace is still at a relatively nascent stage, but it is certainly growing. Some of the longest lasting and most inspiring organisations in the world use story to educate, invigorate, and motivate their staff.

A new study suggests that stories go as far as changing our brains, albeit for just a few days.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

The study focused specifically on the lingering neural effect of reading a story, which in this case was the Robert Harris book Pompeii.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

When the researchers monitored MRI images from participants whilst reading stories they found heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, which is traditionally associated with language, the morning after their reading.

“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

It’s akin to the Pygmalion Effect whereby employees behaviours are altered due to the perceptions of them held by their boss.  For instance, if a leader has high expectations for their team, this translates into higher achievement. It becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the leader shows what his team could become and with this new goal in mind the team then strives to reach it.

The regular use of stories could have a similar impact, with the behavioural changes inspired by the stories lasting long after the narrative was consumed by each employee.  With culture and behavioural change lying at the heart of social business, stories may be an under-utilised tool in the leaders armoury.

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