Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: Our Brains as Storytellers

Tyler Reimschisel, MD, MHPE

by Tyler Reimschisel, MD

In a recent Tips for High-Impact Teamwork article, I mentioned that, starting this fall, this series would explore how we can improve our teamwork by applying what we are learning from cognitive neuroscience and psychology about how our brain processes, interprets and responds to activity in the external world. In today’s article, I want to briefly summarize how our brain perceives reality and start to examine how this impacts our interactions with our teammates. 


What is your brain doing right now? Assuming you read the two preceding words, your brain is automatically inferring a temporal, causal and/or other associations between “bananas” and “vomit.” Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, observes:

A lot happened to you during the last second or two. You experienced some unpleasant images and memories. Your face twisted slightly in an expression of disgust…Your heart rate increased, the hair on your arms rose a little, and your sweat glands were activated. In short, you responded to the disgusting word with an attenuated version of how you would react to the actual event. All of this was completely automatic, beyond your control (Kahneman 2011).

To understand why this occurs in our brains, it is important to recall the purpose of our brains. According to a large body of cognitive and psychological research over many years, our brain strives to keep us safe and then to gain status (Storr 2020). The challenge is that our brains are processing about 11 million pieces of data every second! It is not possible to effectively process and interpret all that data all the time, so our brains filter and prioritize the data based on what could cause us harm or challenge our status. 

At any given time, we are more or less safe. Therefore, the brain seeks to maintain our current status quo by doing what it can to control our environment. This is best achieved by monitoring for any change to our environment—since change from the status quo increases the likelihood that we could become unsafe or lose status. Our brain notices motion and anything else that changes in our environment. For example, when your eyes came to the words “bananas” and “vomit” earlier in this article, those words were new data that your brain needed to process. 

That leads us to consider how our brain processes new data. Once it detects change or something else that is new, it doesn’t simply take in the data. Perception is not simply an objective recording of what is happening in the external world. Instead, our brains try to determine what the possible cause-and-effect correlation(s) could be between incoming new data elements and between new data and previous data. 

Maybe this is why we always need to consciously remind ourselves that “association is not causation.” In our subconscious mind (fast, System 1 thinking in Kahneman’s model of neuroprocessing), our brain is quickly and constantly making associations (the words “bananas” and “vomit”) into causations (“the bananas made someone vomit,” “the bananas are vomiting,” “I am vomiting bananas,” etc.). 

Scientists believe our brain is doing this in an attempt to determine whether the new data is “meaningful,” though it is my understanding that there is not agreement on what the criteria are for “meaningful.” Nonetheless, we do know that our brain is constantly creating cause-and-effect correlations from what is happening in the external world. 

A series of causes and effects becomes a story. Indeed, what we know as “reality” in our external world, the “world out there,” is our brain’s constructed story composed of sequential causes and effects. In other words, our brains do not merely take in 11 million pieces of data every second. Instead, they prioritize, filter and organize the data to construct a story of what is happening in the external world.

Fascinating! But what, you may be asking, does this have to do with teams? Well, I will ask you a few questions in response.

  • What does it mean that our brains aren’t robotic data processors, merely taking in all data all the time in a purely objective fashion? 
  • What does it mean that each of us filters data in different ways, prioritizes data in different ways, and makes myriad cause-and-effect correlations that are different in different individuals and may or may not be true? 

It means that perception—our brain’s story about the external world—is a subjective construct of an objective world. This subjectivity means that different individuals experiencing the identical event will not have identical stories about that event. Now that is another level of team diversity! 

The story in my brain and the story in your brain are different regarding the meeting we had together yesterday, our conversation about our project last week and the care of our mutual patient or client earlier today. These different stories can be a strength because they can help us see objective reality more fully, but only if we are working collaboratively and interdependently to share our stories with one another. To help foster this type of storytelling, it is important to better understand what factors influence the construction of the stories in our brains. That will be the topic of our discussion in the next Tips for High-Impact Teamwork article. 


Kahneman D. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011: 50.

Storr W. The Science of Storytelling. Abrams Press, 2020.