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The Neuroscience of Narrative and Memory

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If you’ve had the pleasure of reading bedtime books to young children, you’ve observed one of the reasons why narratives are so compelling. During their childhood, my daughters wanted to hear the same book, Goodnight Moon, over and over: Even after dozens of readings, they continued to excitedly predict what would be on the next page and to take great pleasure in being right.

That childhood desire of children—wanting to hear books read aloud and repeatedly requesting those few they know well enough to predict—encompasses powerful brain drives that become memory enhancers.

The experiences we have with narratives starting as young children establish supportive conditions in the brain for learning and remembering, based on a foundation of emotional connections to the experience of being read to or told stories. In addition, the familiarity of the narrative pattern becomes a strong memory-holding template.

Positive Emotions

Listening to stories during childhood is a pleasurable experience that the brain remembers and continues to seek throughout life. Strong emotional memory connections are intrinsic to children’s experiences of being read to or told stories. Often the memory is simply the cozy feeling of being snuggled in bed. Notably, though, even for children raised in tumultuous circumstances, memories of bedtime stories mean that things were relatively, or at least temporarily, calm.

Far beyond childhood, when one recalls being read to or told a story, there is a renewal of the sense of being cared for. That positive emotional state can resurface throughout one’s life when narratives are heard.

In addition, hearing the same book repeatedly allows the brain to seek its own intrinsic rewards. The brain’s response to making a choice or prediction that turns out to be correct is a release of dopamine, triggering a feeling of deep satisfaction and pleasure.

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