Once Upon a Little Blue Pill…

In 1992, a group of scientists with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer launched a clinical trial of a new drug designed to help relieve the pain of recurrent angina. Focused primarily in a small Welsh village known as Merthyr Tydfil, the trials were ultimately declared a complete failure.

Not only did the drug – known at the time as UK 92480 – not work, but it caused a variety of unforeseen yet minor side effects. A decision was ultimately made to end the research, but a funny thing happened when the scientists began to inform the participants that the trial was closing down. The men in the village became very upset, begging the scientists to continue with the project. When that didn’t work, the villagers wanted to know where they could buy the drug once the scientists had gone. It seems that while UK 92480 did not help with angina pain, it did help resolve another medical issue being faced by many men in the village.

Today, that drug is known as Viagra – and when it was publically launched in 1998, Pfizer’s share price doubled in less than three days!

Now…I tell you that story so I can now tell you this one.

For years to come, (and perhaps for the rest of your life), when someone mentions the word “Viagra,” you will automatically think of the scientists and miners in that small Welsh village. It may just be for the briefest of moments—but it will happen. You won’t be able to help it. The word will evoke memories of scientists in white lab coats dispensing little blue pills to the villagers; of those same scientists and researchers wading through reams of computer print-outs and scratching their heads in confusion; and even of the coal-faced men pleading with the scientists not to end the clinical trial.

You will recall all these things because you learned how Viagra came to be through a story. Not facts, figures or business plans. A simple story—and we are learning that story-telling holds the key to creating successful learning, comprehension and long-term memory for the listener.

Basically, humans are inherently story-tellers because it is the easiest way to bring order to the chaos of our unburdened minds. From sitting around a fire 10,000 years ago recalling tales of the hunt, to the explosion of publishing and distribution of ideas through books, to sitting as a family around the radio waiting for “The Lone Ranger” to start; to standing in lines a city block long to see a movie about a giant shark terrorizing a small New England village, human beings love stories. We can’t help it—we’re drawn like a moth to a flame. And science is beginning to understand why.

Research undertaken over the last two decades has consistently shown that the human mind in its natural state is disorganized. We are bombarded by random thoughts, fears and worries for the whole of our waking hours. And, in fact, the effort to make sense of these thoughts becomes the basis for most of our dreams. But listening to a story built on simple elements—cause and effect, crisis and resolution—helps bring a sense of reason and order to our minds.

That’s because listening to a story has been shown to stimulate a broad area within the brain’s frontal cortex. Not only are Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area stimulated—the language and concept translation parts of the brain—but in fact the entire cerebral cortex where important functions like memory, emotion, attention and consciousness are housed become actively involved when being told a story. This means that listening to a story actually causes your brain to become stimulated in a manner similar to what you would experience if you’d physically been present during the time and place in which the story occurred. You feel real emotions, create long-term memories, make reasoned judgments, and feel motivation to act just as if you’d been in that Welsh village with all those scientists and miners.

Not to mention that being fully engaged in a story causes our bodies to release a neurochemical called Oxytocin, which results in us feeling kindness, motivates cooperation, and promotes empathy—the ability to feel the emotions of others. This is important because, as social creatures, it allows us to understand how others may react to a given situation—and motivates us to make judgments on how we might react if faced with the same circumstances.

Naturally, this is a simplified view of the decades of research and scientific data on the impact of story-telling, especially as an educational tool. But let me ask you this…with all of these emotions being triggers, memories being stored, and motivations being promoted, imagine if you were able to use this same tool—the power of story—to engage the public about how to prevent diabetes; train medical staff on how to suit up and treat an Ebola patient; educate public health staff on how best to successfully translate evidence-based programs into their own communities; or motivate stakeholders on why support of HIV prevention is so crucial.

So, next time you open PowerPoint on your computer, or make notes for a conference at which you’ll be speaking, or even try to talk with your kids about something that’s important to you, think of those scientists and miners in the little Welsh village—and use the power of story to engage, educate and motivate your audience.