Monday, February 04, 2013

Effective stories produce brain chemicals

Human Brain by BrianMSweis
hypothalamus=red, amygdala=green,
pons=gold, pituitary gland=purple
CC image from Wikimedia Commons

Why do some stories 'work' really well? Why will some stories reduce an audience to tears, or silence, or a warm fuzzy glow?

I remember telling 'Oh Luck of the Ugly', a Sudanese folktale about an ugly girl and her struggle to find happiness, to some Year 12 girls in a Brisbane school. Many of them had tears in their eyes and were strongly moved by the story. We talked about it and then I asked them, "What do you think boys would do when they listen to this story?" They were collectively derisive. One said, "They would just laugh."

I said, "No. Year 12 boys listen carefully and, towards the end, go very quiet and thoughtful. This story effects them as well."

How does a 'good' story bring about this effect? Well, it seems that effective stories stimulate the brain to produce specific two brain chemicals - one, cortisol, encourages the story listener to 'concentrate' and the other, oxytocin, to 'empathise'.

As storytellers, we know that if we are going to tell a story it might as well be a good one. It needs to follow narrative structure and if you like the term, as script writers and movie directors do, the dramatic arc. It needs reachable characters, a setting we can imagine, a challenge or a problem to overcome and finally a clear resolution.

Now, if the character is similar to the audience and, if that problem is one that a particular audience has experience with or imagine they might and, if the resolution is one that has meaning in their lives then that story is going to move that audience. I bet those chemicals will start effecting the way your audience will 'be in the story space' and 'empathise' with the characters.

This video talk,  Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc: Paul Zak at the Future of StoryTelling 2012, is definitely worth watching. It will effect the way you think about stories.