This Is Your Brain on Stories

Book concept Landscape young boy walking through crop field at sunsetAs Jim watched Maria on the screen twisting and screaming in a frantic attempt to free herself from the fleshy jungle vines, oxytocin flowed from Jim’s pituitary gland, allowing him to share Maria’s fear and desperation.

Stories are as old as humankind, told in caves, in tents, and around the dinner table since humans first were cognitive of time and space. It’s how we passed down traditions and morals and told tales of conquest and defeat. From the Odyssey to the Bible to cave paintings, telling stories is the history of civilization.

While we know the power of storytelling intrinsically and anecdotally, it’s only recently that some of us humankinds found the chemical link to storytelling. Not surprisingly, it has a maternal tie. Webster’s New World College Dictionary makes no mention of oxytocin’s storytelling ties. Instead, proving once again that dictionaries take time to catch up, Webster’s tells us only that oxytocin “stimulates contractions in the smooth muscle of the uterus and facilitates the secretion of milk.”

Recent research shows it is also released when one hears, reads, or watches stories.

Perhaps because of its primary maternal applications, oxytocin when released through storytelling enhances “the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions,” Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University and president of Ofactor, Inc., wrote in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article.

But to be effective, storytelling must follow the classic narrative arc taught in creative writing classes. “We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention—a scarce resource in the brain—by developing tension during the narrative,” Zak wrote. “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, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300.”

Its application in the business world is equally clear.

“I advise business people to begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story. Why should customers or a person on the street care about the project you are proposing? How does it change the world or improve lives? How will people feel when it is complete? These are the components that make information persuasive and memorable,” Zak wrote.

Storytelling puts us in touch with our feminine side. And we are motivated to act.


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Karen Hibdon on September 10, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Very interesting!

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. […] This Is Your Brain on Stories […]

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