There’s something about stories that captivate us. Even stories we’ve heard hundreds of times in one form or another continue to compel our attention. Take Hollywood, for example. Content is rehashed, characters, settings, and details changed, but the main story is one we’ve all seen before. Yet, we’ll happily pay to see it again in a different form on the big screen. Why? Do we not recognize it’s the same plot as the last film we saw? We do, but it doesn’t matter. Our brains are wired for stories—hearing them, reading them, telling them, we love it all.
So, let’s take a look at our brains and dive into the science behind our affinity for storytelling. Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak writes, “In order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention...by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, [they’ll be] likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.”
But why does this happen? What causes us to feel tension, share the emotions of characters, and mimic their feelings or behaviors?
The answer to this lies in the neurochemicals our brain produces, specifically cortisol, oxytocin, and dopamine.
Cortisol: the attention grabber
We’ll start with cortisol, the hormone released in response to stress, which is what causes our fight or flight reaction when we’re scared. However, for our purposes, cortisol is in response to the action of a story—the danger, risk, or potential reward in the plot that the characters are facing triggers the release of cortisol in our brains.
You know that feeling when you pick up a book and the plot immediately pulls you in, compelling you to keep reading? When your palms sweat during an intense action scene in a film? Or that moment during a sports match when it’s the last minute, your team is down but can still win, they have the ball, a player on your team is racing toward the goal to score, and your heart is pounding? That’s cortisol. You were waiting for the excitement, and if it’s a well-told story—which even good sports matches are—that’s exactly what you got. And now you’re hooked.
Without the reaction in our brains caused by cortisol, we lose interest quickly. We’ve all started a book, began a movie, or watched the first half of a sporting event where nothing exciting really occurs. What happens? We put the book down, find a different film to watch, or go get a snack at the concession stand. We are human, and we crave action, adventure, and a sense of risk, whether it’s real or perceived.
Oxytocin: identification with characters
Though cortisol may hook us into the story, it doesn’t keep us there. For that, we have to care and empathize with the characters. This is where oxytocin comes into play. In a story, oxytocin’s effects occur when we see ourselves in the characters—our own experiences in theirs, our own hopes, desires, and dreams in the plot. We empathize. We care what happens to the character, and we want them to have an outcome we deem desirable. If you’ve ever cried during a movie or when reading a book because something dramatic (or traumatic) happened to a character, that was oxytocin having its effect on you.
The same goes for when you feel that moment of bonding with a character—where they have to succeed at their goals, where good must overcome evil, where love must persevere against all odds. We want these things to be true for ourselves and in our own lives, so we also want them to be true for the character.
Where cortisol is the hook, oxytocin is what keeps us engaged in the story for the duration. Summing up the effect of the combination of these two chemicals, Jeremy Adam Smith of the University of California, Berkeley Greater Good Science Center writes, “As the cortisol that feeds attention mixes with the oxytocin of care, we experience a phenomenon called ‘transportation.’ Transportation happens when attention and anxiety join with our empathy...For the duration of the story, our fates become intertwined with those of imaginary people.”
Dopamine: a desirable resolution
Now that we’re excited about the story and our own emotions are tied to those of the characters, we naturally seek a desirable resolution that leaves us feeling good. This feel-good emotion, and our desire for it, is the result of, among other neurochemicals, dopamine. As we just discussed, oxytocin causes us to identify with the characters, binding us to our fictional counterparts. When we identify with characters that experience a positive resolution in the story, this leaves us satisfied and rewarded, just as if we received the positive outcome ourselves.
Now, not all stories have happy endings, and this causes the opposite effect. A less-than-desirable ending is often teaching us a lesson on what we don’t want to happen, and this motivates us to change our thoughts or behaviors accordingly to seek a better outcome—whether this is to reflect on the message of the story or change actions in our own lives is up to the author’s intent. Our response to dopamine is what drives many of our behaviors and actions as humans, and what is a story but an expression of the human experience.
Putting it all together
As humans, stories affect our whole lives. Our knowledge, perspectives, and even our survival have been—and continue to be—shaped by narratives. The psychological response to the three neurochemicals—cortisol, oxytocin, and dopamine—that govern great storytelling also influence how we learn, what we believe, what actions we take, and how we interact with others. These humble chemicals help shape us as individuals, and define our societies and cultures.
As authors and storytellers—whether in the traditional sense, or as marketers, sales professionals, or learning designers—we are entertainers and we are teachers. We want our audience to be hooked by the story, identify with the characters, and respond in a way that aligns with our intent. Though we aim to entertain, the entertainment factor is principally a vehicle to captivate the audience so we can teach them something about themselves, others, or our perspectives and experiences. This is why storytelling is such an effective tool in marketing, sales, and learning.
By understanding and taking advantage of our natural human neurochemical responses to stories, we can craft content that impacts our audience in a way that will stay with them. This is the goal of any storyteller—to engage the audience in a manner that holds their attention and gets the desired message across.
And there’s no better way to do this than through an artfully—and scientifically—crafted story.
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