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What Happens In Your Brain When You Hear A Good Story

21. Mar 2018

what happens in the brain when you hear a good story

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Imagine someone is explaining the solution to a problem, but instead of explaining the problem and its solution as bulleted points, they reveal the problem and its solution as part of a story, complete with characters and dramatic arc. Chances are high that the listener will sympathize with the character and experience some sort of pleasure as the solution to the character’s dilemma becomes clear. But what exactly happens in your brain when you hear a good story?

What Happens In Your Brain When You Hear A Good Story

A good story has a significant impact on the brain. When hearing a lecture that’s full of data, facts and bullet points, the language parts of the brain work alone to decode the words into meaning. However, when the same information is conveyed by means of some sort of a story the brain responds in a different way. Not only does the brain decode the language, but it activates any other part that is related to the subject of the story! The brain reacts to characters in a story in a very similar way as when we experience a real-life interaction. For example, when hearing a story about someone jumping, the motor cortex lights up and goes through the mental motions of jumping. The “experience” of going through the struggle, actions and solutions that the characters are going through, serves to enhance the memory of the viewer.

Living The Experience 

what happens in the brain when you hear a good story

Researchers conducted a study where they measured electro-dermal activity (sweating) while subjects were exposed to a scary story. The subjects experienced most fear when they knew something bad was about to happen to a character, but the character had no idea. This explains why it is easier to remember stories as opposed to facts. You remember better, because to a certain degree you “lived it” – your emotions were involved and you experienced the situation as if you were there!

In a similar experiment subjects were shown scenes where characters experienced pain, fear, joy, etc. Brain scans and blood samples were taken. The results showed that there was an increase in chemicals and brain activity. The results were similar to results when subjects were experiencing these feelings in real life.

This means that, through a story, without having to really experience the situation, we physically and chemically start experiencing it. When the story and the characters draw us in, we experience the events and emotions ourselves.

When You Hear A Good Story, Chemicals Are Released 

what happens in the brain when you hear a good story

Why do we consume stories better than mere factual points of information? Because a good story produces chemicals in the brain!

One is a dopamine. Listening to a good story lights up the same part of the brain as when one experiences pleasure. Stories therefore excite neurons that make dopamine. This affects emotions, movements and sensations of pleasure and pain. As a chemical messenger, dopamine carries signals between brain cells. Therefore, when characters find themselves in stressful situations, viewers’ / listeners’ pulses race, they sweat and they focus their attention on the story. Together with the character, they are ready to take action.

Cortisol is also released to focus a viewer’s attention. This hormone is mainly released at times of stress. The more distress you feel, the more cortisol you release. This chemical will prompt you to take action.

Other chemicals released are called endorphins. The principal function of endorphins is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals. They are produced as a response to stress, fear or pain. Their function is to act as sedatives. For example, endorphins take the focus away from possible discomfort experienced when one does a rigorous workout. It blocks the pain senses in your body and it gives you a heightened sense of pleasure. As your body deals with the stress of the character, endorphins are released that make you feel good.

Stories also stimulate the creation of oxytocin, a hormone that enhances feelings of trust, empathy and generosity. Oxytocin sends a signal that we should care about someone. Therefore, the more oxytocin released the more connected and empathic people feel towards the characters in a good story.

So, excitement created in a story has an effect on the brain: dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin and endorphins are released. When you see characters overcome and defeat the villain, you feel pleasure as the chemicals are released in your body.

The Dramatic Arc

Good stories have a particular structure. It is called the dramatic arc. An effective story includes an exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action and finally a resolution. Stories with this structure have optimal chances of capturing attention, as it causes more areas of your brain to light up and neural activity increases. Then we make deeper connections and remember the story better than when simply presented with a list of facts.

So, behind a good story lies a chemical science and this may be put to good use in your corporate videos, documentaries, advertisements, explainer videos, presentations or your meetings! Use a good story in your communication in order to connect with people on a deeper level. Make use of the dramatic arc in order to tell a successful story. Other tips may be to include a little bit of humor, make the story relatable, explore current themes and use pleasant background music. A good story will release those chemicals. Ultimately, your audience will remember the story and therefore be more likely to remember your message. The end result is good communication.