Crafting the Brain Story
How narrative tools set the foundation for informed decision-making.
We use metaphors when talking about the Brain Story, but not for literary reasons. Metaphors act as cognitive tools that have been shown to help our brains connect unfamiliar concepts with familiar ones. Cognitive research tells us people tend to reason based on narrative elements like anecdote and analogy rather than facts and data. That’s why metaphors have proven to be invaluable translation tools when telling the Brain Story, changing complex, jargon-heavy scientific discourse into concrete concepts that are shared, meaningful, and applicable.
Scientists in the fields of neurobiology and early childhood development came to notice a gap between what they knew from their research and what most people believed about childhood development, and how childhood development relates to lifelong mental health, addiction, and other outcomes. Because of this gap, it was challenging to discuss these issues productively, let alone gain the public support and professional consensus necessary to improve policies and practices.
The Core Story of Child Development
To address this gap between science and public understanding, scientists from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child collaborated with strategic communications experts at the FrameWorks Institute to craft a scientific narrative called The Core Story of Child Development. This core story puts key scientific concepts about brain development together into a narrative. The concepts themselves are explained using concrete, mechanistic metaphors that translate complex science into terms familiar to non-expert audiences.
The Need for a Reframing Tool
People understand the world using cultural models: existing assumptions, opinions, and attitudes about matters like raising children, managing health, and treating addiction. New information is processed through established frames: the organizing principles we use to sort, classify, and process new information. Cognitive science, along with a growing body of FrameWorks knowledge, tells us these assumptions are unlikely to be moved by the introduction of new empirical evidence; changing public thinking about these issues involves reframing the assumptions themselves. A core story gives experts and non-experts new organizing principles and provides a common language to communicate complex ideas. It supplies the knowledge required to make informed decisions about broad societal concerns ranging from health and education to justice and social services.
The FrameWorks Institute
The FrameWorks Institute has been instrumental both in creating the core story and in helping Alberta change agents frame the science as a means of changing the discourse within their own organizations and systems, and with the public.
Founded in 1999, the FrameWorks Institute is a U.S. organization that helps non-profits shape public discourse about specific topics in order to facilitate more informed decision-making. For the core story of brain development, this entailed communications experts working alongside neuroscientists and brain development scholars to develop a new way of communicating key concepts. Incorporating elements of linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and political science, this cross-boundary team worked to develop a new approach to sharing scientific information about early childhood and its connection to later health outcomes, including addiction.
In 2009, the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) engaged FrameWorks to validate the core story of brain development in the Alberta context. Based on this work, the AFWI has created numerous communications assets to disseminate the core story among its stakeholders. Collectively, these materials are known as the Brain Story: a narrative that builds upon the core story of brain development to also incorporate science about adolescent and adult health outcomes. Experts from FrameWorks and the AFWI Advisory Council remain key advisors in this effort.
The frames that help us understand the world work symbolically, through images, analogies, and metaphors. Metaphors, therefore, are a powerful reframing tool because they connect familiar concepts to complex or unfamiliar ones. For example, concrete concepts like “house” or “playing catch” become cognitive translation tools for abstract scientific concepts like “epigenetics” or “contingent reciprocity.” While metaphors are only part of the larger frame, they are key to raising public understanding of complex issues. The most effective framing metaphors help to redirect the cognitive pathways we default to when processing particular ideas and issues.
To be effective, framing metaphors must resonate with people, and they must accurately reflect expert knowledge. Creating an effective metaphor is a complex process. A range of potential metaphors must be identified, empirically tested, and refined to determine which ones are most likely to make their way into the cultural consciousness. Surveys of representative sample groups determine how well the test metaphors can be understood by the public, how likely these metaphors are to enter cultural discourse intact, and how effective they will be for the experts and advocates who use them.
A Core Story for Alberta
In 2010 the FrameWorks Institute commissioned two experimental online surveys in Alberta. The surveys were designed to uncover existing values and cultural models surrounding early childhood development, mental health, and addiction in the minds of Albertans; the surveys also tested certain framing metaphors that had performed well when creating the core story of brain development for U.S. audiences. The findings of these surveys validated the efficacy of the core story for Alberta audiences.
To see how effectively they could influence Albertans’ support for policies related to early childhood development, child mental health, and addiction, the surveys tested four different values: prosperity, ingenuity, prevention, and interdependence. While ingenuity was the most resonant value in the U.S., interdependence emerged as the key value in the Alberta cultural context when considering topics related to mental health and addiction. These findings suggest that framing these issues in terms of their contribution to the common good could be the most effective means of raising support from experts, professionals, and the public in Alberta.
Testing Framing Metaphors
Surveys tested a range of metaphors developed to communicate key principles of the early childhood development core story to see how effective they were for Albertans. The primary metaphors tested explained a range of concepts related to brain development, as well as the related concepts of executive function and epigenetics. Because early research showed that Albertans have a limited understanding of brain development, effective framing metaphors could help Albertans consider these issues more constructively and determine which policies are needed.
The framing process is applicable to a range of ideas and organizations concerned with increasing public knowledge about specific social issues. FrameWorks Academy provides training in reframing and using metaphors through a series of learning courses.