The brain: Your built-in storytelling app

Research on how the brain functions and how it operates while a person reads shows that the organ is constantly telling stories.

That's according to Dr. David Rose of the Center for Applied Special Technologies and Harvard's Graduate School of Education, who spoke to employees at Scholastic last week about his research into reading and the brain.

"You can't help it. You're a story-making machine," he said.

This post is an attempt to recap some of what I learned from Dr. Rose's talk:

To make predictions and help you react to and navigate the world, the brain is constantly formulating "stories of your past" and "stories of your future," and applying emotion to those stories to decide what's important to you and optimze how you react in relation to core needs.

Some basics on how the brain functions can help explain how this happens:

There are three core regions of the brain.

1) The back part of the brain is essentially a "recognition network" that takes in information -- evaluates objects observed, puts simple stuff together to into more complex things, and builds knowledge and comprehension based on that information.

2) The front part of the brain is for acting and projecting, and making plans for the future. It's constantly doing this. During reading, for example, the brain is constantly making predictions about what's going to come next.

3) The center of the brain handles the "why" and the emotion of learning. It decides what's attractive, what to pay attention to, and what's important. It optimizes according to core human needs.

Research in recent years has show how all three of these regions of the brain work almost simultaneously when people are reading. And through constant knowledge-building, predicting and optimizing, the brain pieces together stories about what happened and what will happen in the future.

David's lesson for all of us, and especially for teachers, is about the profound impact that stories have on us.

For many children whose stories of the past hold them back from believing in their abilites, educators can help children re-tell those stories. According to Rose, research has shown that students who re-tell positive stories about their past (often through writing activities) before taking the SAT, get a bigger boost in scores than those who cram at the last minute.

Teachers, according to Rose, can also help students reimagine stories of their future. One way to do this is by helping shift students' mindsets about intelligence and helping them understand that "effort counts."

"Stories help you make sense of the past," David said. And "they are tools for doing emotional work."