Monday, May 4, 2015

Neural Ballet

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When it comes to stories, the majority of us tend to read or watch them, but listening to stories being told (just like our ancestors did) is becoming increasingly popular. Talking books have been around for some time, but it’s the podcast that’s really produced a thriving mini-industry in the last few years.

An article by Kevin Roose on New York magazine gave three key reasons behind the podcast’s golden age:
  1. The stories are good, right up there with popular television series and backed by decent budgets and industry expertise;
  2. The economics are hard to argue with; and
  3. We’re becoming a bunch of otherwise-engaged travelers, consuming media everywhere we go. Even our cars are well-equipped with mod-cons that connect people with streaming audio.
So we’re becoming a world of listeners, but do the stories still engage us in the same way that reading or watching does? “A good story’s a good story from the brain’s perspective, whether it’s audio or video or text,” says Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

The Atlantic asked the question of Zak, why do audio stories captivate? In a nutshell, his answer was tension – it’s what all of the best stories have, woven into a type of universal structure that carries some sort of challenge or conflict. It sparks a connection, both emotionally and intellectually. We become transported into the story, feeling it and empathizing with the characters. Zak describes it aptly as ‘neural ballet’ – we’re not physically part the story, but our brain responds to it like we are.

Research has found that podcasts that use a dramatized audio structure, with voice actors to tell the story, stimulate listeners’ imagination and interest in a story, over narration. Sound effects have been shown to help too. It’s all part of building your own personal image of a story in your mind. “You’re creating your own production,” says Emma Rodero, a communications professor at the Pompeu Fabra Unviersity in Barcelona.

What could be more captivating than that?

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