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The Science of Storytelling: What Do Stories Look Like?

With all of the buzz around ‘telling better stories’ as a means of making educational interventions more memorable – a noble pursuit for sure – there doesn’t seems to be a lot of agreement on what this really means. As a result there appears to be little progress being made (and maybe even some confusion and contention)!

Enter science 😉

In a recent publication, Reagan et al have leveraged semantic analysis and a big data approach to deconstruct the general emotional arcs of more than 1,300 stories. Here is their abstracts:

“Advances in computing power, natural language processing, and digitization of text now make it possible to study a culture’s evolution through its texts using a “big data” lens. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories and forming patterns that are meaningful to us. Here, by classifying the emotional arcs for a filtered subset of 1,327 stories from Project Gutenberg’s fiction collection, we find a set of six core emotional arcs which form the essential building blocks of complex emotional trajectories. We strengthen our findings by applying Matrix decomposition, supervised learning, and unsupervised learning. For each of these six core emotional arcs, we examine the closest characteristic stories in publication today and find that particular emotional arcs enjoy greater success, as measured by downloads.”

To dig into their methods and broader conclusions click here!

I have been doing some related work over the past few years, helping educational designers to visualize the rhythm of their own ‘stories’….an eye-opening endeavor for sure (see figure).

I have had the pleasure of working with designers to inspect and understand their own ‘learning grams’ which depict how their educational activities unfold, each icon representing a learning moment they have designed to drive reflection or nudge a learning action. This is yet another benefit of the Learning Actions Model – it allows designers to create moments that support the key elements of their content and in doing so perfectly paints the picture of the story they intend to tell.

For reasons both obvious and less-than-obvious, story telling in medical education is not exactly the same as story telling in fiction; but the value of studying the ‘shape’ of stories is no less valuable. And as I read Reagan’s work on stories, and as I reflect on the reaction designers have to ‘seeing’ their own stories deconstructed within the ArcheViewer; I feel like the science of storytelling is finally coming together!

Written by

Brian is a research scientist and educational technologist. He helped transform Pfizer’s Medical Education Group and previously served in educational leadership roles at HealthAnswers, Inc.; Acumentis, LLC.; Cephalon; and Wyeth. He taught graduate medical education programs at Arcadia University for 10 years. Dr. McGowan recently authored the book "#socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare" and has been invited to speak internationally on the subject of information flow, technology, and learning in healthcare.

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