Someone once introduced me and another friend to a song, explaining how she had first heard it. It was the last night of a festival, and as the sun began to rise on the beach this song came on. Years later I heard that other friend introducing the song with the same story as if she had been there herself. We called her out on it, and she freely acknowledged that the anecdote was not her own, but that it didn’t really matter. She was not trying to claim the story for herself but using the narrative to lend the song the same emotional weight it had formed in her own mind. A song fused to a memory that wasn’t even her own.
Situations like this aren’t rare. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories and related to them as though they were our own experiences. Recent work by neuroscientist Uri Hasson might shed some light on why this happens. Hasson scanned the brains of several people with an fMRI scanner while they told or listened to stories, and found that the brains of different people quickly synchronised as the narratives where told. Not only this, but that similar activity occurred in the brain of the listener and the speaker. He hypothesised that the process of reconstructing the story in our own minds creates a similar effect to having experienced the events ourselves.
There are many other studies on the effects of narrative on the mind, but what interests me is the specific effect of hearing a story, rather than watching or reading. Emma Rodero’s work centres largely on the effects of radio drama on the mind. Rodero’s findings show that dramatised audio dialogue stimulates increased imagination and visualisation in listeners, and that this is heightened with the addition of sound effects.
That might seem fairly obvious, but points towards one of the great advantages of spoken or aural stories. They give us the when, the how, the why and all the emotions in between, but never create the block of visual reality. It’s a soft medium in that way.
A great example of this is found in the first season of Serial. For lots of people, Serial painted an instantly recognisable landscape. So many of the personalities and dynamics at Woodlawn High School connect with our own teenage years. I feel like I have walked the halls of that Baltimore high school, but in my memories it resembles the halls of my own secondary school in the UK. Worlds apart I’m sure, but in the artificial memory being formed by Sarah Koenig’s storytelling there is room left for images, which I am then able to fill with iconography from my life. It allows me to personalise the narrative to relate better, without affecting the details or structure of this entirely foreign story.
Going back a little, I’d like to reiterate the power of sound effects. Darryl W. Miller and Lawrence J. Marks did some research for radio commercials in 1997 which found that images generated by sound effects were stronger than those created by voice alone. Emma Rodero claims that sounds give listeners a sense of space, which allows for further immersion. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a well described scene might be more evocative than a single sound, but it seems a sound can paint a thousand words. Julian Treasure goes further, exploring how sounds can have a physiological and emotional effect on us. His work shows how we are hardwired to react to different sounds, citing the reassuring effect of birdsong, or the increase in heart rate created by a loud alarm.
When we look at something like Serial S1, what we see is a large amount of content being formed by location recordings - phone calls, car rides, doorsteps, etc - rather than simple studio narration. Koenig doesn’t just tell us about the car ride, she gets you in the car. This brings with it a cacophony of additional sounds. The vocal acoustics, the breeze through windows and the twist of tires on tarmac. It’s an approach to audio which made This American Life so popular, and one which we can hear across an increasing number of platforms. It may also go a little way to explaining some of the criticism levelled at Serial S2, which inevitably had less access to the sounds of its Afghanistan set narrative, and portrays less relatable scenarios.
So what can we learn from all this? It’s clear that the relationship between humans and narrative is a strong one, working on a deeply neurological level. It’s also clear that sound plays a great role in how we interpret those narratives, and the level of interaction we have with them. For me what’s most interesting is the ability to enhance comprehension and empathy through the right type of aural stimulus. Finding the right tools not just to tell stories, but to create whole new memories.