This Is Your Brain On Storytelling

the chemistry of modern communication

Giovanni Rene Rodriguez

Originally published in

Back in the 1980's -- at a time when television advertising was still the preferred way to grab the average consumer's attention -- there was a popular public service announcement (PSA) commissioned by the Partnership For A Drug-Free America, a group dedicated to preventing substance abuse among teenagers in the US (disclosure: a former client of mine was part of this campaign). The ad -- which originally ran in 1987 in spots as short as 10 seconds -- was a vivid, visceral piece of persuasion. In the 15-second version, we first see hot butter melting in the skillet and hear a voice say, "Okay, last time. This is drugs." At the six-second mark, an egg plops onto the skillet and the voice says, "This is your brain on drugs." We watch the egg fry -- and it fries quickly -- and at the twelve-second mark the voice asks,"Any questions?"

Looking back, a few things strike me about the ad. First, it's a great example of how stories can be told in super short formats (foreshadowing what marketers would learn later in the digital age). The PSA had a clear Act I, II, and III.  But the ad also reminds me of the many anti-drug campaigns from that era that failed to engage their stakeholders for lack of an effective rhetorical device. As we learned later, it takes more to wage a war on drugs than to ask children to "just say no." But what I like most about "This Is Your Brain On Drugs" is how it is unintentionally self-referential. The science of storytelling is actually founded on an understanding of how brain chemistry can be used -- for both good and evil -- to change human behavior. When we see the egg drop into the pan, a cocktail of chemicals get mixed in our brain, and takes us on a journey.

Awareness, Arousal, Action

On the other side of the millennium, the ad also feels old and quaint, in part because today we know a lot more about brain chemistry and the role that a small set of organic chemicals are activated when people hear stories.  The topic of storytelling and brain chemistry has been socialized in both popular and semi-academic books like Charles Duhigg's 2014 bestseller,"The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business" (which is not about storytelling per se, but covers the topic) and Jonathan Gottschall's absorbing 2013 academic memoir, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human." These books and others have spawned countless articles by business professionals about the practical. commercial applications of the young science. Another academic -- Paul Zak, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School -- cleverly used video (a superb medium for story because it leverages sight, sound, and motion) to tell the story of brain chemistry and storytelling. His 2013 short for the Future Of Storytelling video series is a must-see-and-hear.  

I'll get to Zak's video in a moment. But first, let me provide a fast primer on the organic chemicals most cited in stories about storytelling.

First, there's cortisol, which gets produced when something warrants our attention, like distress. Where we hear about potential threats in our environment -- or hear something distressing in a story -- cortisol helps us stay attentive. From a marketer's perspective, cortisol may be the compound most closely associated with the "top of the funnel" experience -- the first contact with a customer -- known as awareness.

Next comes a far more popular compound -- so much has been written about it -- called dopamine. This gets produced to aid in an elaborate learning system that rewards us (with pleasure) when when we follow the emotionally charged events in a story. This takes us further down the funnel. If cortisol helps with awareness, dopamine aids, so to speak, with arousal, rewarding us to stick with the journey.

And then comes what could very well be the wonder drug of storytelling: oxytocin. While there are many other things in the human organism that help make us social, oxytocin has been identified as a chemical that promotes prosocial, empathic behavior. And, according to the story scientists, it's what enables us to identify with the hero/protagonist in a story.

Which brings us back to Professor Zak. In a 2009 studypublished in The Annals of the New York Academy of Science, Zak  asked his subjects to watch two videos. One tells the story of a father whose son is dying of cancer and who is struggling to find a way to connect with the boy. The other is a more static, storyless video of the father and son taking a walk in the zoo.  It should not be surprising that the first video was more engaging. It was more than that. As a writer for the Atlantic noted, "[t]hose who reported feeling empathy for the characters in the clip were found to have 47 percent more of the neurochemical oxytocin in their body than those who didn’t feel empathetic toward the characters." But Zak's story about story doesn't end there. As he notes in the voice track of the video, Zak's team ran a second experiment where they gave money to the subjects that they could spend as they pleased. Zak's team found that the subjects who produced the highest levels of cortisol and oxytocin were "more likely to donate money generously."

Let's pause for a moment, and summarize. Loosely speaking -- I will not pretend to fully understand the chemistry -- with cortisol, we have a chemical (let's call it a drug) that helps with awareness. With dopamine, we have a drug that helps with arousal (pleasure). With oxytocin -- in combination with cortisol and perhaps with dopamine and other potential chemicals in the storytelling cocktail -- we have a drug that helps produce action, the grand prize in marketing at the bottom of the so-called funnel. As Zak concludes, one can "change behavior by changing our brain chemistry."

A couple of thoughts in closing:  first, the cocktail might work -- i.e., persuade someone to take action -- regardless of the veracity of the story. In a great post for Nautulis, a science magazine, physician Robert Burton observes:

We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible.

This should be troubling. Many people know the power of propaganda, but perhaps far fewer know just how biologically susceptible we are to telling stories -- and hearing stories -- that blind us to the truth.  But another way of looking at this is that the rough science can be used for good, evil, and the perhaps lesser evil of amateur science and opportunism. The popular literature on the science of storytelling includes how-to articles on its uses in healthcare (producing better patient/clinician interactions). It also includes articles and books on litigation, sales, and marketing (my own profession).

In my research, I came across a book for writers that promises to teach you how to "hook" readers with the power of neurochemistry. I found the mere notion of such a book both intriguing and offensive. First, as a writer, I can't help but wonder what I can do to better engage a reader. But to think that I might be "hooking" a reader -- a word that has been used in the war on drugs, well before the 1980s and the famous PSA -- just feels wrong. And I am concerned about the amateur, junk science that might get unleashed; as the saying goes, a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous, and the power of the story about storytelling chemistry might actually blind us to other perspectives, competing or complementary. As I will argue in my next post -- with some storytelling persuasion, I hope -- storytellers always have a choice, and they are most human when they exercise that choice with an understanding of the ethical implications of their craft.