Following is the full transcript of Emmy-nominated screenwriter Sarah-Jane “SJ” Murray’s TEDx Talk: Hardwired for Story at TEDxSanAntonio conference. This event occurred on November 18, 2017.
So, it’s a beautiful day in Ireland. You know, it’s not raining, which is rare.
And today, the sun is just hitting off the ocean as it laps up against the shore. Just one of those days where the little baby seals are lying down on the rocks, and they’re sunbathing and they’re playing in the water. And if you squinch your eyes up back over the sand dunes, at the top of the sand dunes you’ll see a beautiful green field. And in that field, there’s a herd of cows. Behind the field, there’s a little wooden fence.
And behind the fence sits a little yellow bungalow with a blue door. Behind that door lurks Slattery, the standard poodle. Now, ever since he was young, Slattery has had a call to greatness. He yearns, in his little poodle heart, to be nothing more than a sheep dog.
So every Sunday morning he waits. And he paces, back and forward, because he knows that sooner or later, one of his children, who live in the house, will leave that back door cracked just enough for him to get his fluffy black nose into it. And he’ll scoot it open, and he’s off. Across the yard. He clears that fence like a jumper pony. He is running through the grasses and the wind, his little poodle heart free. And he chases down those cows. And before you know it, he has them running in a perfect circle.
Now, if you think this is a quintessential image, you’ve got to hear what happens next. You see, if you’re standing by the back door of the bungalow, what happens next is a giant ball of fuschia runs out of the house, clears the fence faster than the poodle, heads off across the field after the dog, screaming and waving its hands. And that would be my mother in her very bright, pink nightie wearing her Wellington boots.
This image of my childhood is engraved in my brain. Is it really any surprise that I grew up playing with imaginary friends and with words? For better or for worse, it’s now engraved in your brains too. And that’s because you’ve just experienced a phenomenon called “neural coupling.” You know, we’ve all sat in those really boring presentations where it just feels like the speaker is droning on with this monotone voice and they have those giant PowerPoint slides with the tiny font. Like, where do they get that font, anyway? Like, it’s so small.
And when I sit in those meetings now, I don’t feel guilty for falling asleep because thanks to the neuroresearch done on neural coupling, I know that the speaker is literally speaking your brain to sleep. You see, if you tell a story well and you’re not just talking about language, you’re causing all your brain to fire on many, many cylinders. So when you’re listening to the PowerPoint, and you’re only, as you’re processing the language on screen, only the language part of your brain is working. But when you think of a fluffy, black standard poodle clearing a fence and running after cows, then the part of your brain that processes motion fires up.
And if I tell you, in addition, that it’s a beautiful sunny day, and that the sky is blue, and the wind just is blowing the grasses and you can hear them rustling in the field, then the part of your brain that processes colors fires up.
And what if I were to tell you that if you just take a deep breath, you can smell the ocean, in fact, you can even taste the salt on your lips? Well then, you’ve guessed it. The part of your brain that processes taste and smells fire up. In fact, we know today that the way the brain of someone listening to a great story functions, it mirrors the brain of the person telling the story. In fact, there is such a little difference between these brain activities that the brain of the person listening to the story mirrors the brain of the person living the adventure for the first time. What that means is if you’ve ever read something like Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” and you’ve thought, “Wow, I almost feel like I went to the concentration camps,” that’s because, to all intents and purposes, to your brain, you did.
But there’s more. Stories affect us because they alter our chemistry. When a story is well told, two major chemicals are released into your body by your brain. When you experience the struggles of a protagonist, then, under that stress and duress, you’re going to release cortisol, just as if you were living the stressful adventure yourself. And when you’re yearning for that protagonist to reach their goal, you release oxytocin, the bonding chemical, and you feel empathy. That’s why you can walk away from a story and care.
And the first thing about stories, as we know well, is they have to make us care. You know, stories are the great levelers of this world, not because they eradicate our differences, but because they transcend them. And because of all this research, we know that our brains on story function like nothing else. In fact, we are all 22 times, yes, 22 times, more likely to remember a story than fact alone.
The thing is, though, the stories have to be well told. And my brother experienced this, I think, for the first time when my dad was reading “The Lord of the Rings” to us, when I was a little girl, about four-and-a-half Jonathan was probably two, two-and-a-half. And we were sitting there in bed one night, and Jonathan was holding his little teddy bear, Ben. And we were just rooting, like we were feeling that experience of the struggle, because today, this night, Gandalf was fighting the Balrog.
We’re like, “Yes, Gandalf, you’re the man.” There was no doubt in our childhood minds that Gandalf was going to win this battle; he’s Gandalf: “You shall not pass.” Unfortunately, if you’ve read Tolkien, you also know what happens next. Gandalf falls into the deep with the Balrog, and, to all intents and purposes, dies.
So, as my brother experiences the release of oxytocin and cortisol under this stress, it looks something like this in my bedroom that night: Tears. Which incites my dad to the greatest storytelling spoiler in history. “It’s okay, Jonathan, Gandalf isn’t dead. He’s going to come back in the next book as Gandalf the White.” You know, what this experience taught me well before I understood it is we have to be careful about the stories we tell.
We want – we need stories that incite us to greatness. You know, storytellers in this world have a great duty to bequeath a legacy to the future, to think about the ideas that inspire us to be bigger selves, better selves. You know, this is why, generations from now, people will watch William Wallace going up to his final trial and tribulation in Brave Heart, and as “Freedom!” rings out from his lips, we think, “Yes! That’s the kind of life I want to live too.” You know, a civilization that forgets how to tell its story crumbles and dies.
Whether you’re thinking about writing a novel or a movie or a poem or a song, please remember that a great story, we now know scientifically, mimics exactly what Aristotle told us over 2,000 years ago: Human beings are hardwired for story, and they crave three-act narratives that introduce them to a hero that allows us to suffer the trials and tribulations and struggles of the hero as they wrestle through their adventure. And at the end of the dramatic arc, when they emerge from the story not the same person as when they started it, we rise up, and we’re ready to be changed too. That’s why storytelling is the key to the New York Times Best Sellers list. It’s the key to marketing. It’s the key to education.
But it’s so much more than that: Stories are ideas in action. Stories incite us to action. When they grab onto our hearts and become part of us, we carry them with us wherever we go. You don’t have to be a screenwriter to tell a great story. You can go home tonight, write a letter to your great-great-great-grandchildren. You’ll likely never meet them, but through the experience of neural coupling and the tales that you tell, they will remember you, and they will live the better for it.
What will you tell?
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