Way back in the mists of time, before Guttenberg’s printing press, before the Chinese invented parchment paper, before clay tablets and papyrus, humans passed information along through stories.
It turns out those thousands of years of storytelling tradition may have actually altered our very biology, as a new paper published in Cell reveals that narrative stimuli, i.e. “Once upon a time,” or “My fellow Americans,” synchronizes the fluctuations of heart rates between the individuals listening.
Human hearts don’t beat in perfect rhythm. Depending on a person’s level of physical fitness, fluctuations and variability in the regularity of those beats at rest can actually measure almost entire seconds.
As strange as it sounds that a speaker and listeners’ hearts literally beat as one, further findings from the study reinforce the idea of storytelling as a biological determiner. For example, the matching of heart rates is determined by the attention paid by the listener to the speaker, and that this phenomenon predicts the memorization of the narrative content.
This isn’t the first time this incredible connection with stories has been demonstrated to have a biological impact on humans.
It’s been shown that the brains of people watching films together tend to “tick collectively,” suggesting why films can be so enjoyable as a group activity, and why the greatest films affect us the way they do—because they are literally changing our biology into “pay attention and remember” mode.
In the heart rate experiment, subjects were presented with a 1 minute audiobook snippet of Joules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. They found that there was significant correlation of heart rate synchronicity between subjects. To control for error, they gave all the subjects different 1 minute sections, and as predicted, the heart rate synchronicity dropped significantly.
This explains why story time is such an effective teaching tool for kids.
Distractions were found to disrupt this synchronicity, specifically when during the narrative stimuli, participants were asked to repeatedly count backwards.
Most people can probably remember a live performance that held them in a spell, when the instruments were perfectly mixed, or the orchestra was in perfect harmony with the conductor.
It’s pretty astonishing to imagine what’s really going on in that concert hall: all the musicians are playing in perfectly synchronized rhythm according to the time signature of the piece, and all the notes are matched identically along an almost infinitely-sensitive scale of frequencies, while all the brains of all the audience members are “ticking over” the same, and all their hearts beat collectively down to razor-thin differences.
Essentially, all humans become one large organ of perfect order.