How our brains get hooked on narratives

Joan Westenberg
8 min readNov 20, 2023

In late 2018, the world was captivated by the dramatic rescue of a youth soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand. The Wild Boars, a group of twelve boys aged 11 to 16 and their coach, explored the Tham Luang cave complex when sudden monsoon rains trapped them inside. As days turned into a week, hope began to wane.

The story that unfolded over the subsequent days was one of international cooperation, human ingenuity, and unyielding hope. Expert divers, engineers, medical professionals, and volunteers from around the world converged in Thailand. They worked tirelessly to provide the boys with food and medical care and formulate a rescue plan. The operation was fraught with danger. The caves were still flooding, and none of the boys could swim, let alone dive. The rescue team pressed on, determined. Their efforts, shared in real-time through news outlets and social media, held the world in rapt attention. It wasn’t a news story. It was a real-life drama unfolding on smartphone screens everywhere.

As viewers watched, glued to smartphone screens, a pair of British divers navigated the labyrinthine cave system, found the team alive, and huddled on a small rock shelf. This moment, captured on video, went viral.

The story, with its suspense, emotional highs and lows, and ultimate resolution, showcases the power of narratives to influence and shape opinion. It wasn’t the facts that captivated the world, but the way the story was told: the focus on individual bravery, the technological and human challenges, and the global community that formed to support the rescue efforts. For some, it’s a story that transcends borders and languages, reminding us of our shared humanity and the extraordinary feats we are capable of when we come together.

But for others, the narrative at the heart of the Tham Luang cave rescue was not a simple, gripping tale of survival and human resilience; it was a tool for various entities to further their goals. For the Thai government, it was an opportunity to demonstrate their competency and compassion in handling a crisis, bolstering national pride and international reputation. For global media outlets, the story was a goldmine for viewership and ratings, as the dramatic rescue provided captivating content that drew audiences worldwide. Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk…