SfN18: Telling Stories of Science

Guest post by Kayt Sukel 

There’s an old Hopi proverb: “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

In today’s world, where science seems to often get short shrift, Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at New York University and a member of the Dana Alliance, believes that storytelling can be a powerful tool for scientists to share, teach, and connect with the world outside their laboratories. She convened the second storytelling session at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting this year, recruiting scientists and science educators like Monica Feliu-Mojer, director of communications and science outreach at Ciencia Puerto Rico; Rachel Yehuda, director of the traumatic stress studies division at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine; Paula Croxson, senior manager for education programs at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute; Jean Mary Zarate, senior editor at Nature Neuroscience; and Uri Hasson, professor of neuroscience at Princeton University, to discuss why stories can be so compelling—and what they can offer the average budding neuroscientist. Part storytelling event and part scientific presentation, each participant demonstrated how personal narratives can transform science communication in different ways.

Monica Feliu-Mojer tackled the elephant in the room with the first presentation in the session, “Who Speaks for Science?” 

“Not surprisingly, it’s often white people—white males, in particular,” she said. Yet, those of us who don’t fit into that category, she argued, can change the narrative by offering the world our own stories—and be a force for change. She highlighted that the lack of diversity across the scientific community can make people feel left out and as if the work does not apply to them.

“With our stories, we can connect culture and context. We can make science relevant to people’s lives,” she said. “Science progresses when all are included, and all perspectives are told.”

Paula Croxson, who works with Story Collider, a series of live shows and podcasts that features “true, personal stories about science,” says that telling stories can help inspire the world to trust scientists and their findings. She said that, as a scientist, she had always hoped that her data would speak for itself. But, over time, she has found that by telling her personal story, she could inspire more trust—and confidence in her work.

“I am my personal story. I am my science,” she said. “Stories are a tool that can help you connect with people and really build trust.”

It also is a tool that can help further your career. Croxson noted that journal articles that included narrative were more likely to be accepted into high-profile journals and be cited by fellow scientists. (She also was awarded the 2017 SfN Science Educator award.)

“Our stories help us break down barriers,” she told the audience. “There are so many ways to connect with people, but emotion, making it personal, helps you to connect in a way like no other.”

Uri Hasson shared neuroimaging data from his laboratory that looked at how one’s stories can “infect other people’s brains.”  His work shows that the point of view, or personal perspective, of a storyteller can change the way others understand the world by changing brain activation patterns.

“Storytelling can shape and reshape our future thoughts and beliefs,” he said.

But perhaps the most compelling part of this session were the personal stories that were interspersed between the “professional” talks. Rachel Yehuda, Jean Mary Zarate, and Wendy Suzuki all played Scheherazade for their time, demonstrating Croxson’s point about the power of storytelling as they shared how their lives have shaped their science, and vice versa. They wove persuasive tales of sacrificing rats, Holocaust survival and stress, having babies, embracing music, finding new paths forward, and the power of memory to a spellbound audience.

Those who tell the stories rule the world. And it’s clear, after this event, that those who can tell the stories of science will be the ones to inspire generations to come.

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