Dopamine in Storytelling: How Our Brains Addict Themselves

In Blog, Technical Storytelling by Jordan Urbs

Dopamine is one of the heaviest hitters of neurotransmitters in the brain and the most basic form of human storytelling chemistry. Activating learning pathways while associated with those “feel good vibes,” when it comes to good storytelling dopamine creates the motivation to find out what happens next to our character.

Why does our brain want to learn what happens next? For the same reason our brains are designed to derive value from stress: because if our ancestors never learned new things, they would not have survived.

[Start from the beginning of our Art and Science of Storytelling series.]

Image by alinnnaaaa on Unsplash

Dopamine Offers Behavioral Rewards To Your Brain

Dopamine is commonly considered to be responsible for behavioral rewards in the human brain. While it is technically not the chemical that creates pleasure (that would be more associated with endorphins or oxytocin in storytelling), dopamine plays an important role in our desires to seek out that pleasure again. For example, after you’ve experienced it once, you can assume that you will receive a pleasure reward from sexual activity because dopamine is released on arousal. Or someone will want to take a certain drug, eat a certain food, or take part in an activity because of a similar neurological response.

Storytelling works the same way. We turn on Netflix because subconsciously we know that these masters of storytelling will give us a nice hit of story arc juju. Our brains assume not only that the movie or show will hook us into the development of a character and bring us along for their wild ride, but our brains also expect the satisfactory moments or happy ending that will result in a flooding, all-but-orgasmic release of dopamine.

Dopamine Improves Focus in an Audience

The simplest way to trick encourage the brain of your audience to release dopamine is to pique their curiosity. A familiar character in a well-formulated environment can create this curiosity rather simply (I use the Ben Still Analogy in our storytelling guide). But if the character is perhaps more internal, interest can be generated using traditional plot techniques. Imagine a cliffhanger, a plot twist, or suspenseful moment in a movie or series.

In a non-narrative story, dopamine response operates the same way. Imagine a philosophical question, debate, or ideology in other types of videos. What will get the audience’s mind firing with curiosity?

brown egg

Photo by Daniel Jericó on Unsplash

Building Anticipation in Storytelling

As usual, it’s critical to keep your target demographic in mind when brainstorming how to tap into that curiosity and build anticipation. Asking fundamental questions about the nature of Keynesian economics to an audience of teenagers at a TikTok panel will probably not yield the desired results.

Likewise, I remember watching Bill Murray’s Lost in Translation in high school and getting up to leave about 30 minutes through. The demographic of 16-year old heterosexual males was much more interested in Jennifer Aniston in a bikini on the beach in the next theater over than the artistic exploration of love beyond language. (Or whatever that movie was about!)

Video Examples of Dopamine in Storytelling Using Cliffhangers

Our Brains Use Dopamine to Addict Themselves to Storytelling

Because of its behavioral rewards dopamine is considered to be the root of most addictive behaviors. You remember that last time you binged on that sci-fi series? Well, just remember that these big studios know what they’re doing to get you obsessed. They may as well be fast-food or pharmaceutical companies. Even those series that kind of suck are hard for us to shut off, because our brain addicts itself to finding out what happens next to our beloved characters onscreen..

gray and red vintage radio

Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

In short, dopamine in the context of storytelling helps your audience give a f*ck. If your story isn’t utilizing curiosity, anticipation, and emotionally-charged situations to attract the attention of viewers, you probably won’t be engaging your audience to the degree you’re hoping for.

PELEIO’s Got You Covered With Video Storytelling Support

PELEIO is a video storytelling community that strives to bring you the resources required to put your story onscreen in a manner that will excite and engage your audience.

Once you’ve inserted events into your story that will activate dopamine, you might want to explore creating stress and tension with cortisol. Or maybe you’ll want to schedule a quick call with us, and we can discuss your idea together and see how to best move it forward using the tools available to you.