Stories are undoubtedly a crucial tool in forming how we feel about both ourselves, and our role in groups. Indeed, a study from 2013 found that stories go as far as changing our brains, albeit for a relatively short period.
“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” said neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”
A more recent study examined the role stories play in the way we bond with others. The study was particularly interested in the way stories, and therefore our memories, shift as we begin to share them with others.
The shifting sands of stories
The study found that when we begin to share our recollections of the past with others, they tend to converge on a synchronized version in a process known as mnemonic convergence. The authors believe this could be particularly valuable in helping stop the spread of misinformation.
“If you’re a policymaker trying to annihilate misconceptions, you should identify a piece of information that’s relevant, accurate, and, importantly, conceptually related to the misconception,” the authors say. “Keep practicing that information. Send repeated messages into the community. If people care about the topic, they are going to talk to one another about it and by spreading the accurate information, psychological research shows, they will likely forget about the misconception.”
The study saw participants reading a number of stories about American Peace Corp volunteers, before being tested on their memory of each story. The tests were done in two chunks, with the first seeing participants tested after reading the stories alone, and the second tested after sharing the stories with others.
When the two recollections were compared alongside each other, it emerged that after sharing the stories with others, our recollections converged on a single, shared story.
“Our study shows that when we talk about memories of collectively experienced events with others, we start remembering these memories in similar ways. Importantly, as a group, we also tend to forget the same information following these conversations. We are, in essence, synchronizing our memories at a community level,” the authors say.
It seems an intuitive finding, but it is nonetheless one of the first studies to actually showcase the phenomenon in a research environment. The next stage is to test the theory on a larger group, and also to test our emotions about the stories we share, and whether emotions converge in the same way facts appear to.
Such insights into collective memories have a number of uses, not just in understanding the spread of misinformation but also in the emergence of cultures within organizations.