The one who tells the stories rules the world. (Hopi Proverb)
The idea that storytelling carries power is not new. Just look at the two quotes above. Same idea, but from two wildly different sources existing in two different times. We’ve intuitively known about story’s ability to influence decisions, bring people together or create division since the beginning of modern time.
The body of research being done on and around the power of story to build community or influence behavior grows exponentially with each year, but we’ll focus on two studies published within the past ten years.
In 2009, Dr. Uri Hasson, a Princeton neuroscience professor, had a graduate assistant tell a story about her disastrous high school prom while inside a fMRI machine that measured and recorded her brain activity. 11 other volunteers were then placed inside the fMRI and listened to the story.
The brain mimicking effect, called neural coupling, is more pronounced the more deeply the story was comprehended. Repetition of facts and data alone did not produce the effect, only stories. Stories, in other words, allow the storyteller to bring her audience’s brains into sync. Members of a community who share a story also share brain waves!
Three years later, in 2012, Dr. Paul Zak released a study of how stories trigger chemical and hormone releases that, evolutionarily speaking, have been essential to our survival as a species. Dr. Zak’s work grows out of his research into a brain hormone called oxytocin. In the early 2000s, he found that oxytocin triggers the brain to feel safe approaching others and associates with greater cooperation. The chemical accomplishes this by fostering a sense of empathy, allowing us to see and feel the world through the experiences of others.
As tribal creatures, this sense of cooperation and empathy was key to our survival.
Once he had uncovered the effects of oxytocin, Dr. Zak and his team wondered if it was possible to ‘hack’ the chemical’s release. In other words, was there a way to consciously produce the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream?
The answer was yes. And stories were the way to do it.
Dr. Zak recruited volunteers and took blood draws from them before and after they viewed a videotaped story. The study showed that character-driven stories reliably triggered the production of oxytocin. Furthermore, the research revealed that the greater the oxytocin levels were, the more likely someone was to to help others or engage in collaborative activity.
In other words, more oxytocin means stronger collaboration!
Subsequent studies explored this ‘oxytocin effect’ further and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that more compelling stories triggered a greater oxytocin release. To maximize empathy, the story first had to focus the listener’s attention by creating a sense of danger or stress. If you think of most classic stories, from Greek Myth to Disney films, most begin with a tragedy of some kind. In fact, many Disney films begin with the death of a parent. There are few things more stressful than that!
With the listener’s attention focused, a strong, compelling story goes on to take the listener on a journey, moving from danger to a sense of accomplishment and well being.
The implications of this for both personal and organizational storytelling are significant:
- If we want to inspire cooperation and a sense of community, we want our listeners’ bloodstreams to be flooded with oxytocin.
- The more compelling the story, the more oxytocin is released.
As with neural coupling, this oxytocin release has been key to our survival as a species.
When we share a story, we’re doing much more than relating a set of experiences. We’re actually transferring those experiences directly to another person’s brain. Next time you tell a story or go to a live storytelling event (which I highly recommend because they can be amazing!), notice the audience and your own reaction. If the story is strong, you’ll find that people laugh together, mirror each other’s physical movements (this is where the phrase ‘edge of your seat’ comes from) and even breathe in sync.
I'd love to hear about your experiences. How does this research match up with your experience of stories in the world? What does it bring up for you?