Storytelling – why and how does it work?Read More
In a recent blog post, Gaby told us about eight ways to communicate science better. One of them was “Tell a story”. Indeed, storytelling has become a buzzword for many aspects of marketing, not just for science communication. But how and why does this powerful mechanism work? Neuroscience, and a bit of Shakespeare, can give us the answer!
Storytelling has a long history, with cave paintings in France dating back more than 40,000 years. So it is not surprising that our brains are designed to remember engaging stories.
Memory experts have shown that narratives make things easier to remember and understand1. You may have also noticed that words can trigger memories and emotions. So, consider this:
- • Just verbally describing an intense situation is enough to activate areas of the brain that deal with emotional responses2 and release a neurochemical called oxytocin3.
- • Listening to a story activates the brain areas involved in imagining scenarios4.
- • Imagining a visual scene activates the same areas of the brain as when we actually see the scene5.
Oxytocin is a small peptide made in the hypothalamus of mammalian brains3. It is synthesised when we are shown kindness or trusted, and motivates cooperation with others. Release of this molecule can also be induced when we hear or see a character-driven story. We can consider oxytocin as the neural substrate for the Golden Rule: If you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return. In marketing, this means that a well-told story could get a customer to buy from your company, or donate to your cause.
Therefore, a story must sustain attention and contain emotional content to induce the release of oxytocin and make a positive, lasting impression in your listener’s brain.
What makes a story successful?
Keith Quesenberry, marketing professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Michael Coolsen from Shippensburg University conducted a two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials to investigate what makes an ad successful6. By doing so, they realised that the secret ingredient wasn’t that secret, but had been used already by good old Shakespeare, in his famous five-act plays. Already in 335 B.C., Aristoteles began to develop dramatic theory, and his theories were expanded by German novelist and play writer Gustav Freytag, into what is known as Freytag’s Pyramid, used by Shakespeare and others.
Analysing the Super Bowl commercials, Quesenberry and Coolsen found that ads with more acts (a more complete story with a plot) achieved higher ratings.
When we hear a story, classical language regions in our brain are activated. In addition, a story following Freytag´s Pyramid is also associated with activations in areas beyond the conventional verbal regions7.
But why do the stories stick with us? Well, it is because we don’t just listen to them, we see the images and feel the emotions; we actually experience the story as if it is happening to us (and therefore the oxytocin is released). And again, our brain is involved in this ‘experience’ – more specifically the mirror neuron system. Mirror neurons are a class of nerve cells that modulate their activity both when an individual executes a specific motor act and when they observe the same or similar act performed by another individual8. A study by Ramachandra et al. employed psychophysiological methods to elucidate the role of this system in processing vocal emotions9. Skin conductance and heart rate were measured for 25 undergraduate students while they were both listening to emotional vocalisations and thinking (internal production) about them. The results revealed changes in skin conductance response and heart rate during both “listening” and “thinking” conditions. This suggests an active role of the mirror neuron system in processing emotions from stories.
To sum it up, our brain, nerve cells and chemicals are why storytelling is such a powerful tool, that correctly used can work miracles in marketing. And when building your story, turn to Shakespeare to make it memorable!
What do you think about storytelling? Does it work? Tweet me your thoughts at @fraidifrida
- Baddeley, A. D. (1999). Essentials of human memory. New York: Psychology Press.
- Wallentin, M., Nielsen, A. H., Vuust, P., Dohn, A., Roepstorff, A., & Lund, T. E. (2011). Amygdala and heart rate variability responses from listening to emotionally intense parts of a story. NeuroImage, 58, 963-973.
- Zac, P.J. (2015) Cerebrum, February 02
- Abdul Sabar, N. Y., Xu, Y., Liu, S., Chow, H., Baxter, M., Carson, J., & Braun, A. R. (2014). Neural correlates and network connectivity underlying narrative production and comprehension: A combined fMRI and PET study. Cortex, 57, 107-127.
- Kosslyn, S. M., Alpert, N. M., Thompson, W. L., Maljkovic, V., Weise, S., Chabris, C., Hamilton, S. E., Rauch, S. L., & Buonanno, F. S. (1993). Visual mental imagery activates topographically organized visual cortex: PET investigations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 5, 263-287.
- Quesenberry, K.A. & Coolsen, M.K. (2014). What Makes a Super Bowl Ad Super? Five-Act Dramatic Form Affects Consumer Super Bowl Advertising Ratings. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 4, 437-454.
- Babajani-Feremi A. (2017) Neural Mechanism Underling Comprehension of Narrative Speech and Its Heritability: Study in a Large Population. Brain Topogr. Feb 18.
- Kilner, J.M and Lemon, R.N. (2013) What We Know Currently about Mirror Neurons. Current Biology 23, R1057–R1062
- Ramachandra, V., Depalma, N., & Lisiewski, S. (2009). The role of mirror neurons in processing vocal emotions: Evidence for psychophysiological data. International Journal of Neuroscience, 119, 681-690
Notch Communications unveils refreshed branding as it expands into the creative spaces of Neo, ManchesterRead More
Manchester, UK – 3rd May 2017 – Notch Communications, the creative marketing agency for science and technology companies, today announced that it has relocated to join the collaborative workspaces and community of Neo in Manchester. Notch has also just undertaken a complete brand refresh as part of the agency’s leading position in bringing together art and science.
The UK Notch office has moved into a new creative workspace and a new phase of its own brand to allow for expansion, following the addition of several new clients to its growing portfolio. The company is based on a flexible business model that is comprised of a team of trained scientists, marketing professionals, and an approved external network of specialists to support its clients’ changing needs. As a strategic partner, Notch ultimately enables companies to develop and establish a brand that showcases the creativity and innovation behind their science.
“This move, into one of the most creative environments in Manchester, comes at a time when Notch is enjoying unprecedented growth. Our new offices will inspire our wonderful team to create even greater ideas for our global clients,” said Peter Brown, Chief Executive Officer, Notch Communications.
“This is another major step forwards in our development plan that will lead to exciting new partnerships for our company, as well as providing a fantastic environment for our staff,” said Kate Whelan, Chief Operating Officer, Notch Communications.
Notch’s Swedish office in Uppsala has most recently appointed Dr Frida Johnson as Scientific Copywriter. Frida has the joined the company from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, where she was the Communications Officer for the Human Protein Atlas.
About Notch Communications
Notch Communications is a creative marketing & PR agency with great ambition to establish a successful new model for advertising agencies that is more appropriate to today’s world. Notch provides the full range of marketing services to global and local clients, with particular expertise in the life sciences, advanced materials and new technologies. Notch is headquartered in Manchester, UK, and has an office at Uppsala Science Park in Sweden.
For more information, please contact:
+44 (0) 161 457 7230
Gaby’s Top 5 Science moments 2016Read More
This year for my top 5 science moments, I have taken a different tactic to past yearly reviews. I have resisted the temptations to choose a discovery from each discipline of science for the sake of balance and, instead, have included the stories that spoke to me. So, if you are looking for a wide-reaching view of the science of 2016, then this may not be for you. But if you are interested in the science discoveries that captured the imaginations and hopes of this geneticist then grab a cuppa. Here is my top 5 moments from 2016.
5. Pocket-sized DNA sequencer
The ability to sequence a genome and read the code to life is arguably one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of modern science. However, the hardware involved is normally at least the size of a microwave oven and can be very fragile. This year, a biotechnology company made a significant breakthrough with a sequencing machine, the MinION. This sequencer is only 86 grams and is small enough to be forgotten in a pocket! This year however, it was proven to be not only functional but has also been shown to work in microgravity.
In June this year the MinION was sent to the International Space Station to be tested on board. The future holds great things for this technology and space exploration. In theory, the crew could use it to quickly identify the precise cause of any illness to ensure that it is treated effectively. This type of diagnosis is imperative for future missions to Mars and beyond when there is no possibility to restock the limited supply of antibiotics.
However, it is not only for space travel that this development will be useful. Reducing DNA sequencing to a small size means it could be combined with other technologies to allow patients to monitor levels of certain DNA sequences at home. In theory, cancer patients could track the progress of their disease by the level of fusion chromosomes and HIV patients could monitor viral levels as easily as diabetics can monitor their blood sugar.
Whatever the future uses are, the pocket-sized DNA sequencing technology opens new doors for genomics, therapeutics and disease management.
4. Promising results from stem cell treatments for stroke
Stroke research, especially developing therapies, is a complex field that is subject to many challenges. For a long time, the industry belief was that the most effective treatment for stroke would be one that can be administered to patients as soon as possible after the fact, even in the back of an ambulance.
However, new research from Stanford University has broken new ground with a treatment that can be administered 3 years after a stroke. Adult mesenchymal stem cells were injected into the brain of volunteer stroke victims between 6 months and 3 years after the stroke had occurred. Normally, after 6 months doctors would expect no future improvement to occur. However, after the procedure, one patient regained movement in her right arm and right leg even after being confined to a wheelchair for the previous few years.
Mesenchymal stem cells have interesting therapeutic potential as they have been shown to repress the immune system which may have contributed to the high success rate and low number of side effects observed in this trial.
Whatever the theory and the reason behind the success, this trial has paved the way for more successful therapies for stroke victims and has given hope to those that currently live with a disability as a result.
3. Progress in the field of human CRISPR research
2015 was undoubtedly the year of gene editing. As Science’s breakthrough of the year and with multiple advances, it was the beginning of the gene editing revolution. As a result, this year was expected to be when all of that research and progress was finally applied and the true value of CRISPR was revealed. It did not disappoint.
2016 saw the first human trial in China using CRISPR-Cas9 in an experimental therapy for a patient with advanced lung cancer. In this trial, CRISPR was targeted to PD-1 in the targeted cells, which aimed to induce cell death and halt the growth of the cancer.
Equally notable progress was made closer to home in the USA with the start of a safety test of CRISPR for human use. The safety test is administering CRISPR to 18 patients with various cancers but will not be assessed for efficacy. The completion of this safety screen should allow the development of CRISPR therapeutics in the USA and encourage investment into applying CRISPR to proven gene editing based therapies. Such proven techniques include the removal of rejection genes with TALENS by Great Ormond Street Hospital or the addition of HIV resistance genes to patients using techniques done with ZFNs.
The approval of these trials is a big moment for gene editing based therapeutics. After the death of Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, the industry is understandably cautious surrounding these techniques. However, recent developments, improvements and precautions for conflict-of-interest all contribute to making CRISPR-based therapeutics that little bit closer.
2. The continued race for a Zika vaccine
Two years ago, the first reports began to surface about the outbreaks of microcephaly in South America. Quickly, research abounded into the detection of the cause and the Zika virus made headlines worldwide. Reminiscent of the Ebola outbreak, a known virus became more dangerous and was posing a real threat to millions of people.
The response was instant. Never before have so many corporations, research groups and academics reacted so quickly to develop a vaccine for an outbreak. Some vaccines are on track to finish development in a remarkable and record-breaking 2-year turnaround. Lessons have obviously been learned from the Ebola outbreak and teams are reacting quickly to not miss the critical window for a vaccine.
Many have taken the opportunity of the outbreak to develop innovative vaccine technologies. One such technique involves administering spliced viral DNA. The DNA enters the nuclei of cells and is synthesized into partial viral particles. Antibodies can then be created in response so the body is prepared for a future infection. To improve the vaccine, some manufacturers are using RNA as a more flexible alternative to enter the nucleus.
The development of the Zika vaccines has made it into my top 5, not only because new and innovative techniques are being used. The response by the science industry has given me a lot of hope for the future of science. In the face of the crisis, the industry has shown how teams from across the world can work together to create solutions.
1. Discovery of a key moment in evolutionary history
Few moments in evolutionary history can be argued to be as impactful as the point where life transitioned from single-celled amoeba to complex multicellular organisms. The ability to form a multicellular organism is the point at which life, as we know it, became possible. This year it was revealed that this breakthrough in evolution might have been the result of a single mutation and the consequence of simple dumb luck.
For the formation of multicellular organisms, communication between cells is imperative and a failure to communicate, can lead to cancer, developmental abnormalities and death. Researchers found that, approximately one billion years ago, a single mutation occurred in the gene GK-PID.
This mutation allowed the protein to orient the divisional direction of cells by dictating the position of the mitotic spindle in the cell. However this mutation has an intriguing history when you consider how it functions. The mutation gave GK-PID the ability to link an anchor in the cell membrane to the mitotic spindle. The intriguing point is that, at the time of GK-PID’s mutation, the anchor had not yet evolved!
The reason that this discovery is my number 1 of the year is simple. As a geneticist, I enjoy how this discovery reveals the seldom-admitted secret of biology. Life as we know it, and the key moments of evolution, all came down to plain, old, boring, dumb luck!
So, which of my top 5 got you excited about what science has to offer in 2017? Do you agree with my list? Is there something missing?
Let me know on Twitter @GabyAtNotch
The Men Who Enabled Us to View the World in Colour
Bringing colour to the living room
50 years ago this year, the British Broadcasting Company published its intentions to begin broadcasting in colour. One year later the British people saw the green lawns of Wimbledon in the first colour broadcast. On that day, Britain became the first country in Europe to offer regular colour television starting at just 4 hours a week.
John Logie Baird was the man behind the colour transmission system used by the BBC, but was also an important pioneer in developing the first television set, in collaboration with other inventors. He first created and demonstrated colour transmission in 1928, nearly 30 years before it would make its way into British homes.
He died in 1946 before he could see his invention become a widespread phenomenon only a few years later. Without doubt, John Logie Baird can be credited for not only bringing television into the homes of millions but also a few years later, bringing these images in full colour.
Bringing colour to the lab
Roger Tsien was another pioneer who sought to bring colour to images, but rather than viewing sport and the news in colour, he brought colour to the images of science.
Roger Tsien died in September of this year, but certainly lived to see his discovery change how we look at biology forever. In 1994, he discovered an interesting protein in the North American crystal jelly, 14 years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The protein, GFP, has become an irreplaceable asset to researchers across all disciplines. GFP (green fluorescent protein) was identified in Aequorea victoria, the crystal jelly, as the protein responsible for the ethereal glow at the edges of the jellyfish.
After being isolated by Tsien, he found that GFP was able to fluoresce without any other factors than oxygen. This breakthrough led to Tsien proving that GFP could be tagged to proteins in cells, bacteria and living organisms to visualise individual proteins.
After discovering GFP, Tsien and his team began to improve GFP by creating mutants that increased the fluorescence beyond what was found in nature. They also developed a whole palette of colours so that multiple proteins can be tagged at the same time and all seen.
There are now dozens of colours making up a whole toolbox of GFP-like proteins, for scientists to view the subjects of their research in all the colours of the rainbow. Although only a single protein, GFP has enabled scientists to see almost anything in biology, from a single molecule of calcium in a heart cell to an entire organism.
Without a doubt, I am most thankful to Roger Tsien’s discovery for all of the beautiful images it has allowed scientists to capture in the name of research. The British Society for Cell Biology runs a competition every year to find some of the most stunning images and is certainly worth a browse. This is the 2016 winner identifying the substructures within the head of a fruit fly.
Tweet me your thoughts and favourite images to @GabyAtNotch.
World Malaria Day, 25th April 2016Read More
It’s World Malaria Day! Today is an international campaign day dedicated to raising awareness of one of the most prevalent and deadly parasitic diseases on the planet.
Malaria is one of the leading causes of child deaths in Africa. Symptoms include high fevers, chills and muscle pains, and often occur in cycles. Occasionally the malaria parasites can cause extreme forms that affect the brain, lungs, heart or kidney. Malarial deaths are often caused by the development of secondary health issues that may not have occurred had the person not contracted malaria in the first place. These include anaemia, an enlarged spleen or other nutrition-deficiency-related indicators.
It is thought that around half of the world’s population lives in areas that are at risk of malaria transmission and that 91% of malarial deaths in 2010 occurred in Africa. The map below highlights the areas where malaria transmission occurs throughout, only in some parts or does not occur in the region at all.
What Happens on World Malaria Day?
The purpose of World Malaria Day is to encourage activities across various platforms, demonstrating global support for communities affected by the disease and to researchers who are helping to bring new treatments and preventative measures to those affected. Events are being held across the world, including the World Malaria Day Reception in Washington DC and various workshops on malaria, as well as free malaria testing at hospitals in countries such as Uganda. If you are not attending any events then you can get involved on social media by using the hashtags #EndMalaria and #WorldMalariaDay.
Each World Malaria Day focuses around a theme. Previous years have included themes such as ‘Malaria – a disease without borders’, ‘Counting malaria out’ and for the past two years: ‘Invest in the future: defeat malaria’. This year the focus of the day will be ‘End malaria for good’. This campaign seems to bear an element of finality compared to previous years, and this could be due to the significant decrease in malaria deaths by 60% since 2000. This statistic has given many people real hope of seeing an end to malaria – is the elimination and eradication of this disease finally on the horizon?
The Basics: The Parasite
Now you know a bit about World Malaria Day, let’s explore the basics of the disease. Malaria is a single-celled microorganism from the genus Plasmodium. There are five species within this genus that can infect humans: P. falciparum, P. vivax, P. ovale, P.malariae and P. knowlesi. The most virulent and dangerous of these species is P. falciparum. The World Health Organisation reports that 91% of malarial deaths is from P. falciparum infections. Milder forms of malaria are usually caused by the P. vivax, P. ovale and P. malariae species, hence death tolls from these infections are typically lower. The P. knowlesi strain is not strictly a threat to humans as it is mainly infects only long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques – being transferred to humans when this bush meat is consumed.
The Basics: The Vector
Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease. The mosquito acts as a carrier, or vector, that allows the parasite to infect humans. The genus of mosquito that carries the malaria parasite is known as the Anopheles mosquito. There are a huge number of species within this genus that act as malaria vectors, see the map below. It is the female insect that carries the parasite and transmits Plasmodium to a human host in its saliva. It’s specifically the female mosquito that transmits the disease because they require a blood meal to help with the production of a clutch of eggs.
The Basics: Malaria Lifecycle
As the mosquito penetrates the skin of a human to take a blood meal, it injects saliva to aid feeding, and this saliva contains the malaria parasite. The malaria parasite migrates through the bloodstream of the human to the liver. It infects liver cells and multiplies within the cells. P. vivax and P. ovale are able to lie dormant within the cells of the liver and cause relapses weeks or years later. Eventually, the liver cells rupture and malaria parasites are released into the bloodstream to infect red blood cells (also known as erythrocytes). They can then enter one of two stages: the Erythrocytic Cycle or the Sexual Erythrocytic Cycle.
The Erythrocytic Cycle is when the parasites multiply within the red blood cell and rupture to release even more parasites into the blood stream, allowing infection of even more red blood cells. The Sexual Erythrocytic Cycle is when the parasites differentiate into male or female gametes within the red blood cells. It is these gamete-containing cells that are taken up by a mosquito during feeding. Within the mosquito the parasite gametes form zygotes, and eventually infective malaria parasites form within the mosquito’s midgut. The parasite then migrates to the mosquito’s salivary glands, ready to be injected into another human host.
The Basics: Vector Control and Treatment
Vector control has played a big part in helping to reduce the number of infections and deaths from malaria. One of the most effective tools in vector control so far has been the implementation of insecticide-treated bed nets. These act as a physical and chemical barrier between humans and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes. These bed nets are designed to last for up to 3 years before they will need to be replaced, to ensure that they maintain a steady defence against the insects. According to the WHO, between 2000 and 2015 over a billion insecticide-treated nets were delivered to communities in need. This has meant that from 2000-2015, the number of children under the age of 5 living in sub-Saharan Africa and sleeping under bed nets has increased from 2% to 68%! Having said this, the number of other age groups sleeping under these nets has fallen below that of the children under 5. This is because, in 2013, it was found that only around 29% of households that had access to bed nets had enough to protect all members of that household. Additionally, mosquitos developing insecticide resistance is becoming an ever-increasing problem, contributing to the difficulties faced when tackling this disease.
Malaria is an entirely preventable and treatable disease. The drugs given to treat the disease have to be meticulously researched and specifically designed to combat weaknesses of the parasite. Therefore, the WHO recommends therapies that use a combination of mechanisms to attack the parasite; these are usually artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). The WHO recommends 5 different ACTs, with these being the most effective anti-malarial treatments on the market today. The therapy administered will be based on results of studies conducted in the patient’s local area that assessed the strain of Plasmodium falciparum parasite in that region. Due to the combination of drug actions within these therapies, it means that resistance to the drugs from the parasites is very slow. However, much like insecticide resistance, this is also a real issue in the fight against malaria.
It seems like, so far, real progress has been made towards the elimination of malaria. One of the most powerful ways to help fight malaria is by sharing knowledge of the disease through scientific research and educating those affected by the disease. This is why World Malaria Day is such an important tool for raising awareness of the disease. It is a global effort to share resources and focus on the future goals of malaria elimination.
What will you be doing for World Malaria Day?
Why not show your support using the hashtags #WorldMalariaDay and #EndMalaria