“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” – Jonathan Gottschall


When was the last time you heard a great story? Maybe you watched a story on TV, or listened to one on a podcast that made you empathize with a person or group of people you normally don’t interact with. Perhaps your best friend or close family member shared a story with you that brought joy or got you thinking, or you read a good book that transported you to another time and place. Or, you may have seen a short TikTok or Instagram reel that compelled you to take action.

Stories are all around us, and our brains are wired for them. Stories are deeply embedded in our subconscious. We even dream in stories at night. In our personal lives, we are always sharing stories with our loved ones and communities as a means of connection. From a young age, stories are how we make sense of the world. As we grow, stories continue to shape our emotions, motivate our actions, and teach us valuable life lessons.

When it comes to racial and social justice, our movements are a mosaic of stories.  And yet our causes, our organizations, coalitions, and efforts too often fail to bring our work to life through stories – but we can change that.

Here are three reasons for the brain science behind the power of stories.

The two sides of the brain

Our left brain handles logic, analysis, facts, and figures. It is the side that analyzes problems and comes up with potential solutions. Meanwhile, decisions on values and actions originate from our right brain, where emotions reside. Stories play a vital role in bridging the logic-emotion divide. By wrapping facts in a narrative that taps into feelings, stories make information more compelling and memorable.

Stories vs. facts

In policy advocacy and systems change work, we often rely on facts and legal language to make our case. We think that if legislators, elected officials, and voters just had the facts, they would do what we need them to do.

But research shows we’re 22 times more likely to remember information presented in a story compared to plain facts. As Daniel Kahneman said, “no one ever made a decision because of a number; they need a story.” This is because stories activate regions of the brain involved in visual processing, emotional empathy, and social cognition.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Kahneman argues that we naturally resist new ideas or concepts without a resonating story. Kahneman says this is due to our desire for cognitive fluency – a state where the intuitive system of our minds readily processes information as it looks for meaning. Where meaning cannot be found, the reasoning part of our brain takes over and enters a slower but more methodical approach to work out meaning. As he says, the brain is lazy and likes a compelling story to guide it. Neurologically, stories help us get the gist of an idea quickly, trigger our emotions, and become deeply embedded in our memory. When we hear powerful stories (instead of only data or statistics), our brain releases chemicals that help us to remember what we hear.

The power of emotion

Emotions drive human behavior. Scientific research shows that stories help stimulate neurological centers of the brain that help us feel more care and concern for other people’s feelings and experiences. By eliciting feelings like hope, fear, and empathy, stories have the power to motivate us to act or support an idea in a way facts alone cannot.

On an individual level, sharing our personal stories is a way to forge emotional connections and solicit aid for important causes. Hearing a character-driven story releases oxytocin, which has been shown to move us towards cooperation. Stories allow us to see the ways our lives are similar to each other’s, and encourage us to work together. We can use stories to move people from a place of fear to a place of hope; from apathy and self doubt to feeling like – yes, we CAN make a difference; from inertia to urgency; and from isolation to solidarity.

I hope this piece points to the deeper reason why nothing is, perhaps, more powerful and moving than a compelling story. As we work to shift systems and move policy, let’s invest time and effort into crafting stories that can change hearts and minds and win the transformation we seek.