January 13

How great stories move us emotionally and inspire action


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What Is It About The Best Stories That Not Only Move You Emotionally, But Can Influence Your Decision Making?

Video is changing the world, but not just any images thrown together – it must be thoughtfully created and most of all, engaging. You need something that will grab your audience’s attention – and keep it. That ability comes from understanding one thing:

Whether you realise it or not, you came here for a story.

Fiction, non-fiction, anything that captures your attention, stories have captured the human mind for millennia, allowing our ancestors to teach, to guide, to entertain and to protect. Click To Tweet

For millions of years, humans have understood the power of a great story – and now science does too.

Dr. Paul J. Zak, one of the first scientists to integrate neuroscience and economics into a new discipline: neuroeconomics, is the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. Zak’s studies on the effect of stories, narratives really, on the human brain has resulted in his astonishing work and explanations for just what it is about the best stories that not only move you emotionally, but can influence your decision making and even your willingness to give to charity.

Though Zak has devoted years of his life to understanding just what it is that makes a story so powerful, the answer – or at least, the current understanding – is one simple word: oxytocin.

Of course, like anything in science, it is both simple and complex.

Oxytocin is what Zak refers to as ‘an astonishingly interesting molecule.” It is a small peptide synthesized in the hypothalamus of mammal brains, made of only nine amino acids and considered “fragile”.

This tiny molecule is what is responsible for the human understanding of connection, of family, of concern and the need to protect. “After years of experiments,” said Zak, “I now consider oxytocin the neurologic substrate for the Golden Rule: If you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return.”

It is this molecule that is responsible for our need to create our own connections – but what does this have to do with a story?

That’s where the research comes in. Study after study performed by Zak and his fellow researchers have found that the oxytocin does not require the need for a face-to-face interaction, does not require the need for you to even know the person you are now taking into your brain as someone ‘you will treat well in return.’

“Perhaps most surprising, we found that in humans, this “you seem trustworthy” signal occurs even between strangers without face-to-face interactions.”

That points to the power of video.

In fact, much of Zak’s work is focused on the power of visual storytelling. It is the most easily accessible way for all who should hear the tale about to be told, it is the way he has measured his subject’s willingness to give to charity after seeing a visual story – and it is also the way he measured their emotions after seeing a video featuring a man and his dying child.

But it is not what you think. It is not a study that results in weeping from every study subject. Rather, while the subjects found the story of poor Ben and his Father was affecting, they did not produce oxytocin while watching it.

“The ‘flat’ narrative of Ben and his father at the zoo did not increase oxytocin or cortisol, and participants did not report empathy for the story’s characters,” says Zak.

Because a good story does not just have emotion. “I watched Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust movie Schindler’s List once,” said Zak. “I’m glad I did, but I don’t have much desire to watch it again.”

What is necessary to the creation of oxytocin is engagement, and that is the result of emotion, of course, but also, of interest and attention.

“Attention is a scarce neural resource because it is metabolically costly to a brain that needs to conserve resources,” said Zak. “If a story does not sustain our attention, then the brain will look for something else more interesting to do.” In a world that offers a never-ending stream of content for our brains to look to be distracted by, the need to create lasting engagement is more prescient than ever. Click To Tweet 

A good story needs to pull you in, needs to make you feel empathy with the characters and what is referred to as ‘narrative transportation;’ Becoming a part of the story – feeling as though you have left the room you are in and are in peril, or paradise, with the characters themselves. That is where attention is found, and when you put that together with emotion – when you find the narrative that will grab both – then you have a viewer who is on your side, who is ready to partner with you as they did in the story you shared, one who is ‘motivated to treat you well in return.’

But even the scientists will tell you, that narrative needs to be left to the artists.

“The emerging science of narrative can guide the art, but it cannot replace it,” said Zak. “Humans are just too complex for an algorithm to generate art.”

We want the buzz on your favourite stories! What do you love about the way a great video can tell a story? What is your favourite narrative, or even trope, and what do you think makes a story last forever?

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