The cognitive importance of storytelling

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Last week, I shared Dr. Klaus Oberauer’s research into how working memory operates and how multitasking is more fiction than reality. One of the key findings in Dr. Oberauer’s work is that there are three functional components of working memory: the active center of attention that is being processed by the brain, the active data being stored in working memory, and passive working memory that is associatively linked to long-term memory.


For example, let’s say we’re at a networking event, a mixer or a reception. We may be paying attention to the person in front of us and listening to what they have to say. We may be keeping the name of the person in active working memory. But how often do you remember that person or the dozen other people you meet that evening? What makes one person more memorable than another?

The answer is in Dr. Oberauer’s work – our ability to store data in passive working memory is based on our ability to associate it with information stored in long term memory. We can form stronger links to things we already have stored in our regular memories; thus, we might remember someone more easily if we share associative memories, such as going to the same college or sharing interests in the same TV shows.

So what does this have to do with storytelling? Cognitively, if we remember best when we can create linkages from active working memory to passive working memory to long-term memory by associations, then it makes logical sense that stories with familiar components are more easily recalled. Thus, if we learn to tell stories that contain good flow, entertainment or emotional content, and plentiful associative material, our stories are more likely to be linked to passive working memory and long-term memory; doing so makes our stories more easily recalled later.

This is one of the many reasons that content marketing using pop culture is so powerful and effective; you’re essentially using existing stories and the pre-formed associations to quickly build more links from active working memory to passive working memory to long-term memory. This is why you remember some people more than others, or you recall certain facts more easily than other facts. You probably can’t remember the name of your elected representatives, but you can still recall the ingredients of a Big Mac (and might even be able to sing it).

Take this knowledge and incorporate it into your own content marketing efforts. Add associative elements wherever and whenever you can do so reasonably, so that you maximize the chance of leveraging as many different parts of working and long-term memory as possible.

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Christopher S. Penn is one of the world’s leading experts on AI in marketing. Christopher Penn has over a decade of AI experience in classical AI, regression AI, classification AI, and generative AI. Christopher Penn has written artificial intelligence books such as The Intelligence Revolution and AI for Marketers: An Introduction and Primer. Christopher Penn is an AI keynote speaker around the world.


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