EXT. MOUNTAIN PEAK - DAY
A raven croaks on a snowy summit. A hiker yells threateningly, then grins. The raven flies away to sounds of cheering.
EXT. HIKER CAMP - DAY
Professor Anne Friedlander stops to explain how the trekkers are already suffering from the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness.
As the Academic Technology Specialist for Human Biology, I helped to create a series of videos for the course HUMBIO 135: Exercise Physiology. In the clip above, which introduced a problem set, I edited the footage Professor Friedlander and "human guinea pig" Corey Dysick brought back from an expedition to Kilimanjaro. I provided a concrete context and showed the characters’ development by dramatizing scenes of conflict before asking students to explain their symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Those three C's are the nuts and bolts of visual storytelling.
With the help of Wes Choy of Online Learning, now part of VPTL, we also video recorded stories at MIT’s AgeLab and more exotic locales, in order to show how the body adapts to environmental factors besides altitude: cold, heat, stress, age, and g-forces.
Storytelling increases the engagement of students and encourages them to ask questions about concrete problems, before the abstract explanations are delivered to them in lectures. Jonah Willihnganz , Director of the Stanford Storytelling Project, explains why the expository discourse used in research papers might not always be the best way of communicating scientific concepts, especially to a non-specialist:
Story videos not only introduce scientific concepts, but also encourage a student to infer causality. In the next video Corey wears a suit to simulate aging at the MIT AgeLab. Watch how I juxtapose his pathetic workout with septuagenarian Bill Kaspari's more robust one to dramatize the benefits of exercise:
Students will infer the causality that exercise delays the decrements of age, even though the video doesn't provide the scientific evidence for this claim. That evidence is only explained carefully by Professor Friedlander in the lectures of her blended course (or in lecture videos, also online in her MOOC). Evidence is the very thing scientists demand most scrupulously, but storytellers do not demand it.
A long time ago I got an MA in Creative Writing, and I often think about E.M. Forster's canonical distinction between a "story", which doesn't imply causality, and a "plot", which does:
"The King died and the Queen died" is a story, but "The King died and the Queen of grief" is a plot.
With the addition of just two words the story is transformed, so that we infer that the queen could not live without her husband. However, as touching as this might be in a story, the story provides no argument or evidence for this implied causality. Therefore, we need to always ask ourselves: how can we, as storytellers about science, tell stories more responsibly?
For better or for worse there is mounting evidence that our brains are wired to listen to and tell stories. Not only neuroscientists, but also Silicon Valley has recognized that a story can be much more effective than spreadsheets and graphs to communicate an idea and persuade us that it is a good one.
With Amos Tversky, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman showed how psychological biases challenge our notion of the rational subject in many economic decisions, and the same biases probably affect how we understand all rational concepts. We must work with these biases and take care to help students to infer the conclusions best supported by the scientific evidence, but at the same time, we need to take advantage of the power of stories to better communicate science.
Carlos Seligo is an Academic Technology Specialist in the Program in Human Biology.
You can read more about Professor Friedlander's blended course on Exercise Physiology, and also the open edX MOOC developed with these videos, in a previous Teaching Talk post from 2014: Experiential Video Stories Teach Human Biology.
MEDIA X hosts a Storytelling and Science series on campus, and at the last event Kendall Haven summarized his research findings with a DARPA-funded experiment entitled: "Your Brain on Story"
The Storytelling Animal, by Jonathan Gottschall