Science of Storytelling and How it Affects the Brain

The art of storytelling has been used to pass on our values since the beginning of time. It is how we make sense of the world and affect change. What is it about storytelling that’s so intriguing? Why is it such a powerful and persuasive tool?

To find answers, we will explore the following topics:​

  1. how storytelling affects the chemistry in our brain
  2. what this means in psychological terms
  3. how it changes our actionable behavior

How Storytelling Affects the Chemistry in Our Brain

A particular structure needs to be incorporated into a story to elicit change in our brain chemistry. 150 years ago, a German theorist named Gustav Greytag studied this structure and called this the dramatic arc.

Today, we get better results when we want to influence our teams, customers, and audience.

The particular aspects that go into making an effective story are as such:

Cognitive neuroscientists of universities worldwide have studied the chemical activity that happens as we move through these stages of a plot. ​

Let me try to help you picture this perhaps in a more familiar way. Who loves a good cocktail?

If there is a storytelling cocktail, it will consist of three main ingredients: Cortisol, Dopamine, and a generous pour of Oxytocin. When we hear a good story, these hormones in us are elevated.

Through the beginning stages of the story, the exposition, and rising action, the hero goes through a dark wooded path searching for the dragon. Your adrenaline begins to rise, and cortisol is released. Cortisol helps to focus our attention on something important. It has you on the edge of your seat, and you’re locked in.

As we move along into the climax, the hero slays the dragon, and we win! The natural “feel-good” drug, dopamine, is elevated. This is where the term “dope” comes from. A feeling of euphoria happens. ​

Lastly, the kicker that really gets you intoxicated as we wrap up our story is Oxytocin. This is when our hero saves the princess. This is also known as the “love hormone” or the “trust hormone.” Oxytocin is associated with our ability to care and connect with something or someone. We relate to the struggles that our hero has gone through. Let’s explore this feeling of empathy a little further.

What This Means in Psychological Terms

Have you ever tried to convince someone of something through arguments and reason, but they don’t listen? Or perhaps you’ve tried to teach something to someone, but you can’t get them to remember anything?

Being right is not enough. Facts and reason just don’t cut it. We need to be able to communicate it. Stories are two to ten times more memorable than facts alone. The biggest religions in the world are spawned from books written from a series of stories. Eliciting empathy is powerful and essential when creating an effective and persuasive story.

​Great storytelling has the ability to change how we relate to each other and to change prejudice.

In terms of psychology, our ability to empathize through stories are based on two main factors:

  1. Transportation: when the reader loses themselves in the story world.
  2. Identification: Where a reader takes on the perspective and identity of a story character.

As we become more emotionally invested, the less critical and objective we become. We begin to develop a bond, a parasocial relationship with the characters. Forming a parasocial relationship can make us feel less lonely, buffer self-esteem, and improve our mood.

So now that we are all drunk on this thoughtfully crafted storytelling cocktail — then what? Does it make us take action?

How Storytelling Changes Our Actionable Behavior

Have you heard about an experiment called the “Significant Objects”? It is a study conducted by Josh Glenn and Rob Walker back in 2009. They took $129 and bought many gadgets and gizmos to resell on eBay. They hired writers and marketers to come up with an engaging story along with the object. In the end, they turned $129 into $8,000.

In another experiment, a video that tells a father's story and his critically ill son's relationship was shown to a group of people. This group of people was then given a chance to donate money to a charity that works with ill children, and those who release cortisol and oxytocin donated money to this charity. In fact, the amount of oxytocin released predicted how much money people would share. What does this tell us?

When we lift those levels of hormones from our storytelling cocktail, and we give our audience somewhere to take that energy, they’ll take it. It doesn’t do any good to tell a great story if you don’t give them somewhere to go with it. You must have a clear call to action.

We’ve learned that stories can change our behavior by changing our brain chemistry. That empathy is an essential part of storytelling. In this day and age, buyers of all types are looking for emotional truth, not just rational benefits. The trend now is authenticity, realness, and openness.

Originally published at



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