The Neuroscience of Storytelling

Dec 06, 2019

Professor Paul Zak and his team studied the brain’s response to a simple story about a father and his little toddler who was dying of brain cancer.

They found that two primary emotions are elicited when we experience a good story: distress and empathy.

Further studies showed that the brain produces a chemical called Cortisol when we feel distress, and Oxytocin when we feel empathy.

As a story progresses from beginning to end, the main character (the protagonist, or the hero) has their world turned upside down by some incident or the other (the inciting incident), and the story is all about how they deal with obstacle after obstacle to finally overcome the problem. But they’re never the same again - for better or for worse. This is called the story arc.

We feel empathy for our hero at the beginning of the story. Then we feel distress when the inciting incident happens. This is partly because Cortisol focuses our attention on what happens as each problem arises to thwart the protagonist. So the more distress we feel, the more Cortisol is produced in our brain.

We continue to empathise with our hero as they battle through the problems. When they finally succeed after the climax of the story, we feel satisfaction, warmth, jubilation. We’ve been with them on their journey, so we’ll always remember them and learn from their lessons.

To summarise Professor Zak: stories that cause us to pay attention, and also involve us emotionally, are the stories that move us to action - and the ones we remember.

Translating this into a business context, if the hero of the story is our customer, for example, we empathise with them as they experience distress caused by the problems they face. We know what they’re going through and we offer our products or services to help them overcome their problem.

They’ll listen when we tell a story that shows we understand their pain, and presents them with a way of overcoming it. And they’ll remember us when they’re actually dealing with the problem.

The neuroscience of storytelling goes deep - but here’s Paul Zak telling a bit more about his experiment, and the brain’s response to distress and empathy: