This article was first published on LinkedIn.

saber-toothed tiger

In Defense of Brian Williams’ Brain

Just what we need right now: another post about Brian Williams.

But I can’t help myself because I’m amazed and shocked to see the very people who use storytelling in their work and who advocate and coach others to use it are also so loudly and strongly against him.

The case of Brian Williams’ mis-memory regarding a war zone helicopter ride demonstrates the dark side of neuroscience. The negative backlash is a fear-based reaction because it makes each of us question our own memories.

Storytelling Works. Duh.

My LinkedIn feed is often populated with of junior associates rattling off the same seven storytelling tips we’ve all heard. We get it already. Stories work.

No one has bought in to the new-found discipline of storytelling more than the marketing communications and public relations fields. If your job as a journalist is to tell stories, if your responsibility as a content marketer is to write stories, if your role as a PR practitioner is to convince your leaders that they should tell more stories, then you are a story-vangelist. You sing the praises and preach the advantages of storytelling, including:

  • enhanced recall
  • improved ability to teach a new skill or form a new habit
  • increased connections between people

Using Stories for Good and Evil

These are just some of the reasons communicators love stories so much, but the most powerful reason of all is that packaging information in story-form makes the transfer of ideas easier. Princeton University researchers have found that stories activate parts of the brain that convert the information contained in the story into the listeners’ own ideas and story.

Did you hear that?

Stories transfer ownership of ideas and information.

Marketers and journalists love this powerful aspect of storytelling when they’re using it to their advantage. They love it when you repeat an idea that they’ve been spoon-feeding you. It’s even better when you feel as if you just thought of it yourself.

In the car one day while passing Cleveland’s industrial smoke stacks, my husband scrunched up his nose and said, “Pee-eww.” I took a deep breath and said, “Mmm, smells like jobs.” I related this experience to a reporter friend of mine. Months later, a version of my story was the lead of the reporter’s story, only he was the one in the car in another part of the state. It was an honest mistake, but clearly my observation had planted an idea in his head that resurfaced at another time and place and while traveling the roads of Ohio past some smokestacks, he remembered the comment, “smells like jobs.” What he didn’t remember was that someone else had said it first.

As we’ve seen with Brian Williams, reporters are just as human as consumers and just as susceptible to the power of storytelling.

Therefore, professional communicators shouldn’t celebrate, harness, and advance the use of storytelling on one hand without also acknowledging the potentially negative aspects of the power of storytelling, which includes mis-remembering high-stakes information and events.

Stories are the Reason We Survived the Stone Ages

Our brains are designed to remember traumatic and emotional events from a first person perspective. This is an embedded survival tactic to ensure that if your friend from the cave next door told you about his close encounter with a saber-toothed tiger, you would put yourself in his loincloth, learn the lesson, and avoid the danger yourself.

We are wired for survival.

Our brains evolved to make sure that important information, whether gained through first-hand experience or through a story, was memorable. The more emotional the story, the more dopamine is released. Dopamine is associated with memory, so it stands to reason that highly emotional events create the most vivid and the most easily recalled events. It’s also a fact that memories are unreliable.

Neuroscience Wins Again

We are both saved and held hostage by the same set of chemical reactions.

On a winter day my friends I were on slowly driving along a snowy highway on our way to a ski resort. In front of our Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle suddenly slipped and started spinning. We were following far enough behind that we were able to stop and avoid an accident. The car in front of us also came to a stop, but it was facing the wrong way on the highway. We were eye-to-eye with the other driver. It was scary and you could bet that we talked about that close call the rest of the ski trip and for a long time afterwards.

A year later, I overheard my friend Lesley who was with us on the trip retelling the story at a bar. Only in her version of the story, we were in the car that spun around. When I corrected the story, Lesley looked stunned. Not caught-in-a-lie-embarrassed, but seriously confused. I didn’t understand at the time why these wired had crossed in her brain, but now I do. The other thing I realize now is that my version of the story might not be completely accurate either.

Doesn’t this Jeep ride sound something like a certain helicopter ride we’ve been hearing so much about?

Brian Williams said in his apology, “In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp.”

So it appears that he remembered the story correctly for a while, and then sometime between 2008 and today, his neurons reconnected and transferred ownership of the events from the people he was with to himself. Knowing the reason stories work is the reason I can be forgiving of Brian Williams.

Being a public figure who shared a story that could be verified is the reason Brian Williams was “caught in a lie.” In reality, he is a victim of neuroscience and biochemistry that has been present since our ancient brains first took shape.