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Storytelling Changes our Brain and our Behavior

Updated: Jan 12

Do you think a scientist could predict how much money you will donate before you are given the opportunity to donate it? Recent studies show that it's not only possible; it's probable. It has everything to do with the way stories change the brain.

For thousands of years, humans have relied on storytelling to engage, pass on lore and traditions and to share personal experiences.  But modern science tells us there is much more to it. We aren't just spectators in a story, we’re participants.

We get angry when characters get angry, we laugh when they laugh, and we feel emotional pain when they do. We tend to root for the underdog (an unconscious bias called "the underdog bias" ... obviously!), and we care about the outcome.  Have you ever watched a movie and felt ripped off by the ending?

Once upon a time (not too long ago), researchers discovered that stories affect our physical and mental makeup in a variety of ways. From engaging the whole brain to triggering the release of specific neurotransmitters, stories cause real change — to our thoughts, feelings, and even behaviors. For example, presenters who deliver character-driven stories with emotion enable participants to more easily understand the key points of the presentation but also have better recall of these points weeks later. 

“The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story.” — Michael Margolis

Emotions heighten our ability to remember experiences and improve information processing. Emotions are a signal to the brain that this experience is important.  As a result, the brain pays much more attention and stores the information that is charged with emotion into deeper regions of the brain such as the cerebellum. The more we relate to the characters or the story, the more likely we will be able to recall the entire experience.

Stories are so powerful that the neural activity in our brain is five times our normal activity. Compared with processing data, a story engages up to 7 different regions of the brain as we imagine the experiences we see, smell, hear, or taste. When we hear a story – especially one that has enough distress or tension to capture our attention and one that we can connect with on an emotional level, our brain networks light up like a Christmas tree.

Great stories do another thing: They trigger the release of neurochemicals that sharpen our focus and connect us on an emotional level. According to research conducted by Paul Zak, stories that elicit distress and empathy also motivate a desire to help others. The distress or tension results in the production of cortisol and sharpens the listeners focus.

It’s the brain’s way of saying, “Pay attention! This might be important!” Feelings of empathy generate oxytocin. Oxytocin is what enable us to share the human connection by making us more sensitive to social cues to those around us. These feelings of connectedness increase one’s desire to help, extend generosity or demonstrate altruistic behavior.

Zak and his team found a strong correlation with cortisol/oxytocin levels and motivation to help others. The higher the levels, the stronger desire to help others. They also found that the amount of oxytocin and cortisol participants produced predicted how generous they would be. Zak’s team gave people the opportunity to donate money to a stranger or a children’s charity. The higher the levels, the more money people donated.

So, the next time you want to motivate, persuade, share information that people will remember, or maybe even inspire action, start with a human struggle that has just enough tension that leads to eventual triumph. Facts and figures are great, but there’s nothing like a great story to make people tune in and pay attention.

storytelling changes the brain
storytelling changes the brain

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