“I didn’t see that coming!” is the mark of good storytelling. Surprising information—aka “news”—is what wakes up the mind and engages the attention of an audience. “I wonder what will happen next?” At the other end of a story is our psychological need for closure. So what happens in the middle of the story?
At the beginning of a story an inciting incident is an event that throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, triggering the quest for a new equilibrium. What follows is a series of new events and information that builds not only towards an emotional climax, but also a deeper understanding of what just happened. Insights into the meaning of human experience.
That is the true value of storytelling.
In good storytelling there is a rhythm and pacing to the emotional experiences and intellectual insights that the audience gains from the story. This rhythmic structure represents the learning process, the transfer of information from our Experiencer Self to our Remembered Self.
To illustrate, here is a memory map of what a test audience remembered from Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp, immediately after watching the 37-minute long film classic.
So, there is a rhythm to our life experiences and also a rhythm to the memories that we take away from those experiences. But they are not the same.
One of the scientific methods that are currently being used to measure the audience experience of a movie or an ad is with an EEG headset, i.e. brain-wave measurement. EEG measures audience engagement in real time. It is a measure of the Experiencer Self.
The method that I use to measure audience memories of a movie or a TV commercial is with the Picture Sorts. It’s a technique I invented that is the basis of most of the data I reference in this blog. The Picture Sorts is a measure of what the audience remembers, immediately after-the-fact. It is a measure of the Remembered Self.
Having experimented with both techniques for more than a decade, one of the first and most important things that we’ve learned is that there is only a very low degree of correlation between the two measures. In other words, the two techniques, probing experience and memory, are measuring two very different aspects of the mind.
Here, for example, is a comparison of the two techniques for a 60-second commercial that I tested with an expert in EEG, Prof. Steve Sands of the University of Texas at El Paso. The squiggly line at the top is the EEG brain-wave pattern, while the more mountainous graph underneath is the short-term memory map collected with Picture Sorts.
What the graph shows is that the peaks of the brain wave graph—which occurs when the brain is excited or engaged—are better remembered than the valleys of the brain wave graph. But not by much.
In this experiment we found that the moments in the video that generated brain wave peaks were remembered by 84% of the audience fifteen minutes after seeing the ad, while the images associated with the brain wave valleys were remembered by only 74% of the audience. While this is a statistically significant difference, clearly other variables are affecting the memory of the advertising experience.
One clue to what is going on was found in another experiment we conducted with twenty commercials: Ten of which were strong or above average in their ability to break through the clutter of competing ads and attract consumer attention, and ten of which were weak in their attention-getting power.
This experiment showed that commercials that contain a moment of surprise were much more likely to attract the attention of an audience than ads that did not contain a surprising moment.
Moreover, unlike other moments in these ads, these surprising moments were most likely to generate peaks in both brain excitement during the experience and in the memorability of the imagery afterwards.
One way to create a memory, therefore, is to do something surprising.
However, when we looked at what was going on in the few seconds after these moments of surprise, we found the two curves moving in opposite directions. As brain excitement decreased, memorability increased.
Our interpretation of this finding is simple. When the brain encounters unexpected information from the outside world—i.e. something surprising happens—electrical information is released and the brain lights up, as it focuses attention and generates curiosity, as it tries to make sense of what is going on.
But as the brain works out the meaning of the new information, it calms down and returns to a state of rest. And the image that best sums up the meaning of that surprising signal from the outside world is stored in memory as new knowledge, along with the image that triggered the brain’s processing of that particular moment.
So, the mental mechanism of memory formation is a fractal scaling of storytelling, of stories-within-a-story. That’s the structure of a single meaningful moment.
Just as a story begins with an inciting moment of disequilibrium and ends with a climactic moment of resolution, each scene or significant moment in the middle a story raises a new question in the mind and draws our curiosity forward in search of its meaning.
And it’s the meaning of what just happened that we recall.