Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Science behind Stories and their Impact

If I dip my finger three times in wax, does that make me a candle?

What is the aim of a masonic ritual?
Basically what it does is just tell a story.
After listening to this story the person who hears this story is encouraged to reflect on it - in his own time and manner and take away from the experience something that he finds valuable.

Neuroscience has discovered that we can change behaviours by changing brain chemistry. How do we change brain chemistry?
The easiest way to change brain chemistry is by giving the person some drugs. But since most of us are not licenced practitioners of medicine that option is out. What neuroscientists have discovered is that depending on the emotional state that is created in the mind, different chemicals are released in the human brain. Emotional states can be created by various means. Luckily for us there are ways of increasing those very chemicals in the human brain through other means.
The five senses afford their own means of touching the mind from the confines of the physical world.
  • Vision: Painters and artists know the effect their painting - a visual stimulus, can have on the emotional state of someone who views their art[1].
  • Hearing: Listening to music is one method. Sad music can make people feel sad [2].
  • Smell: The oldest part of the brain and also the least understood but at the same time the most potent in its ability to induce and maintain emotional states. Everyone who have ever dabbed a drop of perfume will attest to the importance it has in elevating one’s mood.[3][4]
  • Taste: The old adage “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” holds true today as it did at the time it gained currency. Scientist wanted to know if this was something that we learnt as we grew up or something that we were born with and did an interesting experiment among newborn children where they gave them plain water, sugar and lemon to taste and recorded their brain activity and facial expression. The results of the study showed that we humans are indeed born with a sweet tooth that pleases the mind.[5] Perhaps this is also the reason why human milk is sweeter than that from cows.[6]
  • Touch: The reason that our species has survived so far is because of the strong feelings this sense arouses among us. The therapeutic value in touch is also known as many people who have been on the hospital beds will attest that they felt less anxious when there was someone to hold on at the hospital bed side.[7]
But then most of us are not trained in the liberal art of music neither are we master chefs! What then is a method that most people can use? The easiest way of creating an emotional state in the mind of another is by talking to them. More particularly, telling them a story. Any of you, who have read bed time stories to a child, know how much it builds a bond between you and the child.

Behavioural scientist have also found that there are certain emotions that when triggered causes behavioural change.
Two of theses emotions are distress and empathy. These emotions led to the release of two chemicals cortisol and oxytocin respectively.
Cortisol is a stress hormone and is released in response to stress. This hormone helps us focus on the situation that is causing us stress.
Oxytocin is known as the love hormone and is associated with care, connection and empathy. If released this leads to a feeling of empathy with the situation and promotes bonding.

Freemasonry takes good men and makes them better through the telling of stories. The parroting of words does little to influence the mind of a person observing the proceedings, but the recruitment of as many of his senses as possible along with a certain atmosphere will definitely leave a lasting impression on the mind of any person.
How does one create this atmosphere? By introducing the element of drama! Gustav Freytag[8] (1816 – 1895) was a German novelist and playwright. According to Freytag, a drama is divided into five parts, or acts, which some refer to as a dramatic arc [9]:

  1. Exposition: Some essential background information.
  2. Rising action: Obstacles that are encountered.
  3. Climax: The turning point of the story or the most dramatic part.
  4. Falling action: The pieces of the story falling into place.
  5. Dénouement: The conclusion where the conflicts are resolved and a sense of relief is gained from the untying of the plot.
Those of us who study the ritual on a deeper level will soon pick up those parts of the ritual where we need to incorporate these elements for maximum effect.

For reflection, I will leave you with some questions to ponder on.
Some ritual stories ‘impact’ us so much that we are changed by it.
Have you ever seen or heard such a story?
Have you ever been changed because of an experience?
Can you bring about such a change in an individual by telling them a story?


[1]     L. Pessoa, “To what extent are emotional visual stimuli processed without attention and awareness?,” Current Opinion in Neurobiology, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 188–196, Apr. 2005.
[2]     J. K. Vuoskoski and T. Eerola, “Can sad music really make you sad? Indirect measures of affective states induced by music and autobiographical memories.,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 204–213, 2012.
[3]     N. Gueguen, “EFFECT OF A PERFUME ON PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOR OF PEDESTRIANS,” Psychological Reports, vol. 88, no. 3c, pp. 1046–1048, Jun. 2001.
[4]     J. Ledoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon and Schuster, 1998.
[5]     N. A. Fox and R. J. Davidson, “Taste-elicited changes in facial signs of emotion and the asymmetry of brain electrical activity in human newborns,” Neuropsychologia, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 417–422, 1986.
[6]     O. Maller and R. E. Turner, “Taste in acceptance of sugars by human infants,” J Comp Physiol Psychol, vol. 84, no. 3, pp. 496–501, Sep. 1973.
[7]     P. Heidt, “Effect of therapeutic touch on anxiety level of hospitalized patients,” Nurs Res, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 32–37, Feb. 1981.
[8]     “Gustav Freytag,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 03-Oct-2012.
[9]     “Dramatic structure,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 30-Sep-2012.

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Werner Kunz via photopin cc
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