The Science Behind Why Our Brains Love Storytelling

Storytelling evokes the quaint images of a group sitting around a campfire with gestures casting shadows on the surrounding trees, drawing the listeners in and leaving them hooked until the very last word. Perhaps playing with a piece of bark to release nervous energy until finally a resolution and sense that the shared journey is complete. Modern storytelling is not a far cry from its campfire cousin with the connection it forges. As a story unfolds, the readers or listeners are reeled in which we all know to have happened, but now neuroscience backs this up with data.

We hang onto every word around the campfire because our brains are invested in and crave the connectivity and completion of the story. This unique neurological experience is studied by Paul Zak, Ph.D. of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and of the Neurology Department at Loma Linda University Medical Center. He has found that the surmounting challenges and obstacles within a story build a connection with the listener. As that connection strengthens, the listener’s body then produces more oxytocin. The stronger the connection, the more oxytocin created, and this is all measurable in the bloodstream. Oxytocin was discovered just over 100 years ago, but in the decades since the science community has found this is the same hormone and neuropeptide plays a key role in how humans build relationships and connections with one another. It increases the sense of an emotional bond. This is exactly the bond that Dr. Zak focuses on.

The study of neuroeconomics lends clarity as to how and why a story is a way to influence others. It is within the factors of influence that people build empathy and a desire to connect, support, or be involved with the story or those involved. As a neurotransmitter, Oxytocin immediately reacts within the brain when the person listens to an emotionally-driven story. This increases Oxytocin in the bloodstream, thereby strengthening the level of empathy felt. The presence of Oxytocin is measurable and can be used to further engage the listener and connect with them. Creating a story that triggers the creation of Oxytocin is essential to be able to then use that in the way you need to develop a stronger relationship with the listener, your potential customer. 

For all this to work, the listener must be paying attention and actually listening. This is rare enough, but even more so in today’s business and social environment. This makes the art of storytelling all the more important. Ensuring that the listener is engaged begins with the content of the story itself. When selecting what tale to share, consider the interests of the audience and the take-away the story offers them. According to Dr. Zak, the first 15 seconds must engage the listener. Unveiling layers of the story in a particular way and order helps to elicit emotional engagement. Express the story in a three-act structure: Grab attention, introduce conflict, and share resolution. There needs to be a moment in which the protagonist of the story faces a crisis or seemingly insurmountable obstacle. The engagement is locked in and brings the listener to the point of wanting to act on the story or help.

Applying this knowledge to your own storytelling becomes an artful endeavour. Just blandly saying the facts of a project or experience could be enough for some to engage, but moments and details are often useful to help draw people in. In the business world, overcoming the habit of being unemotional and exacting may be the first step. It is important to share the authentic feelings on why this particular obstacle or crisis is such a formidable challenge that must be overcome. It needs to be intense enough to be felt by the listener, triggering their own feelings of empathy. Engaging the listener helps them become furled into the story as well, craving a resolution in the outcome. Even a small anecdote or tale can engage the mind and result in loyalty and emotional investment. 

Once it happens, the ability to influence becomes possible. How you use that newly forged influence and customer loyalty depends on your business needs and goals. This could inform your storytelling strategy or be a sign you need such a strategy because a well-crafted message, content, or story can direct customers to your desired result, whether it be sales, donations, or interaction with the business on social media. Dr. Zak’s findings also show that the engagement does not have to be in-person. In fact, there is a very strong response from mobile device users on social media. The warm glow of a screen is just as effective as the warm glow of a campfire. Just as with other business skills, storytelling is worth the effort in business and the science behind it continues to yield impressive data to help leverage storytelling to engage customers and build a stronger community.