The Neuroscience of Storytelling
The chill night air conjured memories of a starry September evening in the foothills of the Italian Alps. My companions and I were gathered around a crackling fire after dinner with the prince of Ruritania. Suddenly a gust of wind reduced the flames to glowing embers, and for the prince’s cherished puppy the threat of hypothermia seemed imminent. As fortune would have it, I was wearing my silk blend Emerald Velvet Caftan (No. 1375), so I swiftly tucked the shivering ball of fur into one of my roomy kimono-style sleeves. Disaster averted. But I digress.
OK, I’ve never been to Italy and I don’t own a caftan, velvet or otherwise. I have, however, been perusing the new J. Peterman catalog. Yes, there really is a J. Peterman! He’s not merely a beloved “Seinfeld” character. The catalog – or Owner’s Manual, as it’s called – is a collection of vintage-inspired merchandise with product descriptions disguised as nostalgic anecdotes. Great fun to read, but as a sales technique, there’s more going on than meets the eye.
We all love stories. They are a huge part of what makes us human. We are social creatures and have always used stories as a fundamental way to connect with one another. Storytelling predates writing as a communications tool. Think about the prehistoric cave drawings of Lascaux, for example. Anthropologists theorize that these paintings of large animals are a depiction of successful hunts. In other words, they’re stories.
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We all know that even the simplest of stories can elicit emotion – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by advertisers. Pepsi capitalized on this in the mid-1970s with the classic, heartwarming commercial that showed a giggling boy playing with a litter of puppies while grandma sat nearby, sipping her ice-cold cola straight from the bottle. It made us feel warm and fuzzy and maybe a little thirsty.
Strategic storytelling can go even further: It can actually have a significant influence on behavior. Evolution has hard-wired our brains to convey emotion through narrative. A compelling tale structured with a classic dramatic arc triggers a strong neurological response. When we are engaged by an effective story, one that captures our imagination and holds our attention, we feel as though we are participants. This empathy can motivate us to action.
Today we tell stories just as we did thousands of years before the advent of the written word. But why? Why are well-told stories so powerful? The simplest answer seems to be because storytelling works. Fortunately, we now have validation of the power of storytelling from the field of neuroscience.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is a technique that tracks the flow of blood in the brain as a surrogate for which areas of the brain are active at different times. Research using fMRI demonstrates that the activity in listeners’ brains follows and mirrors the brain activity of the storyteller (see the Wired reference link below). In other words, listeners’ brains sync with the storyteller’s, and specific areas of the storyteller’s brain that are active while telling the story become active in the listeners’ brains after a short delay. This may be why we say we are “captivated” by a story or how storytellers have audiences “in the palm of their hands.”
On a more molecular level, research by neuroeconomist Paul Zak has shed light on the neurochemical changes that take place in our brains while we are engaged in a story. During tense moments, our brains produce cortisol, which heightens our focus and keeps our attention. Oxytocin is produced when we are shown kindness; it enhances our sense of empathy and motivates cooperation. A happy ending triggers dopamine, which makes us feel optimistic.
Here’s an excerpt from Zak’s article “How Stories Change the Brain.”
We’ve recently used the knowledge we’ve developed to test stories that seek to motivate positive behavioral changes. In a recent experiment, participants watched 16 public-service ads from the United Kingdom that were produced by various charities to convince people not to drink and drive, text and drive, or use drugs. We used donations to the featured charities to measure the impact of the ads.
In one version of this experiment, if we gave participants synthetic oxytocin (in the nose, that will reach the brain in an hour), they donated to 57 percent more of the featured charities and donated 56 percent more money than participants given a placebo. Those who received oxytocin also reported more emotional transportation into the world depicted in the ad. Most importantly, these people said they were less likely to engage in the dangerous behaviors shown in the ads.
Might the stories written on cave walls in Lascaux actually have been a compelling advertisement by a Paleolithic Peterman? “Bison: It’s what’s for dinner.” Which brings to mind the time I was face-to-face with a rather ill-tempered Cape buffalo in the Serengeti. But I digress.
Regardless of the purpose for which a good story is told, neuroscientific research is validating that storytelling is in fact an effective means of communicating with and holding sway over others. If you want to be persuasive, storytelling should be in your toolbox.
Now I can’t help but wonder whether I love my TOMS shoes because of the shoes themselves or because I am simply under the influence of strategic storytelling.
Reference for fMRI study: