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What’s the brain science of storytelling?

Why do we all love storytelling? We devour books, binge-watch TV series, and pay millions of dollars to watch movies. It’s not because we have a vested interest in knowing how the hero saves the day or whether or not love triumphs over evil. It’s because stories touch our hearts and minds, giving us access to another’s thoughts and feelings – although it may be more appropriate to say they touch our minds, then hearts. It’s the brain science of storytelling.

We are truly “wired for story” – the very survival of the human race has depended on it. And by learning a bit about just how the brain is wired up, we can learn how to use stories to get our message across more effectively and even influence future behavior.

Why “Just the Facts” Is Just Wrong

As scientists study how our brains work, we’ve learned that stories engage the same areas of the brain in the listener as in the storyteller. In other words, the brain can’t differentiate between reading about something versus having experienced it.

Presenting facts and figures activates two parts of the brain: Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These are the language processing parts, which convert words into meaning. You would have used them when reading these two sentences.

Stories stimulate multiple regions of the brain far beyond just the parts that process language, bringing us into the story as if we actually experienced it ourselves.

  • Reading a story activates our frontal cortex, responsible for information processing and emotional engagement.
  • A description of a movement, such as “He climbed the mountain one step at a time” engages the motor cortex, which coordinates our body’s movement.
  • The sensory cortex lights up through the use of metaphors involving texture, like “He had leathery hands,” or by describing the aroma of coffee or the flavours of a delicious meal.
  • Our insular cortex searches for similar experiences within ourselves to develop empathy and interpersonal relationships. If our mountain climber gets disoriented, develops hypothermia and loses a finger, and we imagine it happening in our own bodies, that’s the insular cortex going to work.

How to Move Beyond the Facts with Your Brand Story

Great stories grab our interest, have tension and a satisfying resolution. Presenting our ‘facts’ within a storytelling narrative will ensure our listeners relate to what we are saying, turning it into their own idea and experience.

 A Chemical Wonderland

Now that we’ve imagined these areas of the brain lighting up like Christmas lights in tune to a carol, there’s another area to explore – chemical release.

In response to story, our brain releases chemicals that help us to pay attention and remember. (We weren’t joking when we said our very survival as humans depended on being able to tell a good story!)

As we move through a storyline, the brain science of storytelling gets four brain chemicals involved:

Cortisol is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response, meaning we had better be alert and remember, or we might die. In a story, tension, distress, and rising action all release cortisol causing us to sit up and pay attention.

Oxytocin is the ‘relationship building’ chemical. If we are empathetic to the characters, our brains release oxytocin, which creates social bonding and trust. (Comes in handy when relating to your customers pain points.)

Dopamine keeps us engaged, focused, and helps us retain information. It’s released when we feel the end of the story approaching, particularly if it is a happy ending. (Give your customers the solution.)

Endorphins are released by laughter, adding the feel-good factor to a story, allowing us to relax and enjoy.

How to Mix Chemicals in Your Brand Story

Communicating why your message is important in an effective way will release cortisol, gaining the attention of your audience. Oxytocin comes into play when relating to their pain points as you build a connection. When providing a solution, dopamine brings focus and retention. Finally, using the feel-good factor of endorphins will associate enjoyment with your brand.

Touching Minds, Then Hearts

Understanding the brain science of storytelling is an incredible tool that can be used to communicate, resonate with and motivate others. When done properly it affects emotions and influences future behaviours. Knowing how our brains are affected by storytelling should impact the way you tell your story, your social media communications, and the marketing language you use.