The question of how storytelling works is not as buried in conjecture or hearsay as it may once have been. While the status quo of the twentieth-century was heavily against storytelling (instead opting for automation, analysis, and machine-like thinking), the gig economy of the twenty-first century has begun to demonstrate a noticeable shift into the creative sector. Corporate environments, branding, and organization are transitioning to become much more creative and with that, much more open for imagination.
One key area of this shift is storytelling. As our social network society demands more and more storytelling across a vast universe of potential mediums, it’s imperative as both consumers and creators that we understand the basic mechanics of storytelling in our brains and bodies.
What Makes Storytelling Effective?
It’s no surprise that the brain is affected by storytelling. In today’s age of byte-sized content, where stories are an effective form of marketing, learning to formulate story structure is a critical aspect of retaining our audiences. It is perhaps as much of a science as it is an art.
The art of good storytelling brings an audience into its world. With effective sensory cortex stimulation (or is it simulation?), storytelling activates different areas of the brain, tricking your cognition into believing that you’re somewhere you’re not, that you’re someone you may not be, and that you’re experiencing something you’re clearly not experiencing. (Trippy, right?Just Imagine when we start participating in VR stories.)
When we watch a movie or read a book, it’s not simply the storyline that keeps us intrigued. Sure, an intriguing twist on the setup of a movie might reel us in off the get-go with an outlandish environment (I’m thinking Idiocracy as I write this), but it’ll be difficult for the brain to release dopamine (to get the audience hooked) when the character isn’t believable or relatable (I’m still thinking Idiocracy).
How Storytelling Affects The Brain
Humans are empathy machines, whether we like it or not. We may find that we have social walls up in our real lives when interacting with others, but when it comes down to storytelling, introducing the problems a character faces creates an inexplicable bond with the audience.
But how can we find ourselves bonding with a character onscreen? It starts with the very foundation of being human, deep in our brain. It starts with realizing that in many situations, the brain can react the same way to a story as it would in real life.
Dopamine in Storytelling
You may have heard of the neurotransmitter called dopamine. It makes us feel good! (Or at least encourages us to keep seeking those experiences that make us feel good.) Along with a variety of reasons, it can be released in the brain when it gets curious or finds itself in an emotionally-charged situation. Evolutionarily speaking, both these scenarios often constitute an opportunity to learn something, which would help us survive in some way.
Dopamine in storytelling tells the same thing to your brain. It offers us the rewards of satisfaction from discovering what happens in a story because for a long, long time, learning new skills or knowledge helped us humans survive and thrive.[Learn more about dopamine in storytelling.]
Cortisol in Storytelling
Meanwhile, cortisol is released in stressful situations. Cortisol supports the formation of memories in our brain to assist with future “survival mode” options. It can also trigger frustration, irritability, and critical outlooks, so there is also a fine line to walk when attempting to invoke it in a story.
We all know that a good movie or series can feel just as intense as a real-life stress (this time I’m thinking of Casa de Papel). Mix that cortisol in good storytelling into some of that previously-generated dopamine for engaging the audience into “learning something” that won’t be forgotten any time soon.[Learn more about creating tension and stress in your storytelling.]
The Art of Using Storytelling To Affect the Brain
Mixed together for a variety of recipes, there are a handful of ingredients besides cortisol that pair well with dopamine for activating the neurobiology of storytelling. And this is where the art and science of storytelling in the brain comes in.
Traditional storytelling formulas incorporate certain plot structures and character arcs often in an effort to maximize the effect of the release of these different neurotransmitters. But audiences get bored–remember that same Ben Still movie you’ve seen ten times but each time it has a new title? It’s up to our creativity as storytellers to create an effective environment for engaging our audiences.
Oxytocin in Storytelling
Oxytocin in storytelling, for example, can be released by a connection felt to a character’s human experience–try a sad story, for example. Recounted well, and the story will contribute to feelings of empathy and is generated by any character you have developed.
This “sad story” technique is quite common in NGO or charity videos encouraging the viewer to make a donation by the end. A warning: sometimes these can be very cheesy, and this can be a big turn off to your audience.[Learn more about oxytocin and building empathy with storytelling.]
Endorphins in Storytelling
Endorphins in storytelling contribute to focus and engagement, very similarly to dopamine. Like dopamine, endorphins “feel good;” however instead of offering mental rewards, endorphins are more physically-rooted and meant for pain management, to help the body struggle through something.
Many of us are familiar with the term endorphins from exercise (and from that scene in Legally Blonde). Exercise is a healthy type of stress on the body (in this case, unrelated to the emotional stress as discussed with cortisol), and the endorphins created from exercise for pain management result in a sense of well-being for quite some time after.
In storytelling, endorphins may be a bit more difficult than dopamine or oxytocin to activate. Endorphin production can be activated with real, bodily laughter–similar to a stand-up comic, a humorous moment can capture this in the form of a character sharing real vulnerability.[Learn more about producing oxytocin in storytelling for that feel good vibe.]
Each of these are examples of direct chemical changes in the body. It’s no wonder storytelling can be so powerful! The art lies in mixing the elements of your story together just right, to create a neurobiological situation audience that will engage, interest, and resonate with your audience.
If you’ve got the time to watch, David JP Phillips really hits the point home with his cocktail analogies in his TEDx talk:
Why are stories important for video marketing?
Human storytelling is one of the oldest forms of passing on information. After a century of being downplayed by analytics, HR departments and corporate aesthetics, it is coming back in style. We can leverage social media, authentic content creation, and healthy storytelling to engage our audiences to build relationships with our brand.