Striking a Nerve: The Neurobiology of Storytelling

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College Essays that Change Minds

By Adam Liebendorfer

Many students I work with when writing a college essay have voiced frustration with the admissions process. The normal refrain sounds something like this: “I wish I could just go inside the brains of the people reviewing my college application and make them know me!”

Thanks to recent findings in neuroscience, it turns out that a well-crafted essay can do just that.

Neuroscientists have known about the Broca’s region and Wernicke’s area for almost 150 years. These areas in the brain whose circuitry has evolved to help us produce and comprehend language. However, in 2006, researchers in Spain discovered that when we are presented with vivid stories, whether written or told to us, more than just our language centers light up.

The researchers found that when they placed subjects inside fMRI scanners, stories in which each plot point leads to the next stimulated an entire constellation of neural activity. When aromatic items such as perfume and coffee were inserted into the stories, nerve cells in a subject’s olfactory cortex lit up. Likewise, the motor cortex activated when stories included lots of movement.

In essence, a well-told story can cause those listening to you to experience what you have experienced. Fire their neurons the same way you have fired yours. To understand the power of this, we turn to comedy. Comedians on stage don’t only tell jokes and stories. They are also conducting a symphony of cerebra, with each member of the audience firing any number of his or her 100 billion neurons in harmony with those of everyone else.

Narratives do more, however, than just synchronize synapses. Neuroscientists have found that compelling narratives stimulate the release of a neurotransmitter called oxytocin.

Oxytocin has been making its rounds on the Internet for a couple of years now under various monikers: la molécule d’amour, the key to marital fidelity, the Cuddle Hormone. Although most of the coverage of oxytocin correctly conveys that it often seems to be present when people are bonding in some way, recent research suggests its effects go further than bonding and actually promote singling people out. Researchers have even found, when taken to the extreme, that higher oxytocin levels correlate with a heightened bias in one direction or the other—either against someone in our “out” groups or showing extra favoritism for someone in our “in” groups.

Taken in that light, you might say that the neurochemical goal of the college essay is to flood the reader’s system with oxytocin.

So how do we use all this neuroscience when writing a college essay?

Thankfully, we don’t need to write a Russian novel—or even dust off our SAT vocabulary flashcards—to tap into these neural narratives. In fact, the college essay might be one of the best places to use a story.

Here is what has been found in storytelling to be the key ingredients for really getting the neurons firing.

Vividness. Researchers have noted that although unique, descriptive metaphors elicit strong responses in their respective centers of the brain, more clichéd expressions such as “a rough day” tend to fall flat with readers.

Characters. At the center of every great story is at least one good character. In a college essay, picking a main character is simple. Application reviewers will be looking for the writer or applicant front and center.

Tension. Good storytelling must include some kind of emotional tension to wrest readers’ attention away from the other things they might be doing. It’s helpful to keep in mind that the college essay is the only item in all of the materials a student submits that’s equipped to deal with who he or she is as a real, live person. Many of the prompts for the Common App and the Coalition App indirectly ask for some kind of tension in the essay, whether they are asking about a challenging time, an intellectual question, or even the hardest part of being a teenager.

Brevity. Because of all this extra brain activity, becoming consumed in a story takes a lot of cognitive work. Readers are hoping for a pretty quick payoff for the energy they’re investing into a student’s narrative. A descriptive clause here or there might be great for evoking a crucial image to the story, but the 650 words that the Common App allots for the essay is not enough room to wax poetic on, say, the terror in someone’s eyes before a big test or the aromas of a grandmother’s cooking. Just as every sentence has to count. In an effective college essay, every sentence in a story has to do its job in keeping the reader’s attention from wandering away from the story.

This rule extends to vocabulary, too. Employing ostentatious grandiloquence—using overly flashy words—can disrupt the tone of an essay. Don’t pull readers out of the world you are trying to build for them.

With all of these moving parts, no wonder writing a college essay can be so hard. We have to make sure our fingers are typing correctly, our sentences are making grammatical sense, our arguments are making rhetorical sense. It can create overload. Sometimes, the best thing to do is start an essay in the most natural way we humans know: telling a story.

Want to learn more? Here are 10 steps for writing a college essay that gets noticed!

Becky Kahane

Tutor

Originally from Bethesda, Becky developed a love of learning early as a National AP Scholar and National Merit Scholar in high school. She has studied economics and politics at the University of Maryland on a full scholarship and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. After se...

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