8# This is how storytelling affects your brain

If you’ve ever heard that “once upon a time” you already know what means storytelling. In Spanish we can translate it as storytelling, a narrative resource prior to writing that we have been using for more than 60,000 years, since we painted the first cave to communicate.

Every business with a smart marketing strategy is aware of the importance of telling its own story. This is how you leave your mark on your audience’s mind and connect with your potential customer. But why do they work?

As I write these paragraphs I get excited. Right now my heart is beating faster than usual and I bite my lip nervously for what I’m about to tell you.

I’ve been writing stories since I was 7 years old, so when I discovered what chemical reactions were taking place in our brain when processing them, my jaw dropped. I hope this chapter will surprise you in the same way.

To begin, I want to tell you about Paul Zak, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of San Diego. Zak has spent more than a decade studying the release of oxytocin during social interactions with his team.

Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the hypothalamus and is known as the “love hormone” for several reasons. In addition to being released in large quantities during childbirth to trigger contractions and aid in the formation of the mother-child bond, it is also (in part) responsible for empathy and trust between human beings.

During a flight to San Francisco Paul decided to see the movie Million Dollar Baby and ended up crying inconsolably, feeling the pain of the protagonist as his own. He wondered to what extent a story could alter brain chemistry and generate such a powerful reaction, so he decided to carry out several experiments12.

The first thing he did was create two videos featuring the same characters, a father and a young son with cancer.

In the first video, the father appeared in the foreground while the child played in the background. The man recounted how hard his son’s terminal cancer was and his efforts to enjoy every second with the boy, who had only a few months to live.

The second video was a trip to the zoo. Cancer was not mentioned at any time, but the boy was bald due to chemotherapy and was called “the miracle boy”, so the situation was understood.

When they finished they asked for a donation for an unknown person and the result was overwhelming. To check what was happening in the brain with both videos, they took blood from the participants before and after the study.

The first video dramatically increased cortisol and oxytocin, as well as eliciting greater empathy with the donation proposal. However, the second video did not change the levels of these hormones.

This was Zak’s conclusion:

“These findings suggest that emotionally engaging narratives inspire post-narrative actions. In this case, send money to a stranger ”.

To verify that there really was a correlation between storytelling, oxytocin, and empathy (donation), they did a second experiment showing 16 ads on four social themes: tobacco, alcohol, road speed, and global warming.

Half of the participants were given synthetic oxytocin and the other half a saline solution as a placebo, although none of them knew what they had been injected with.

They were also promised $ 5 in exchange for answering a question at the end of the viewing, but when it was over, a software asked them if they wanted to donate part of that $ 5 to a charity related to the themes of the videos.

Now yes, the results were definitive. Participants with synthetic oxytocin donated 56% more than those injected with placebo, confirming that oxytocin plays an important role in postnarrative social behavior.

But what role does the narrative itself play? Are all kinds of emotional stories worth it? To verify this they went further and discovered, through a new experiment, that when the story was well constructed, it managed to capture their attention and also increase the hormone ACTH, in addition to oxytocin.

The result? Donations were 261% higher!

It is clear that storytelling modifies our mind and provokes a reaction in us, but there is still more.

What else happens when you read or listen to a well-constructed story.

Neural coupling: a story activates parts of the brain that allow the listener to transform the story by feeling it as their own.

Dopamine surge: the brain releases dopamine when experiencing strong experiences, which makes the story (and consequently the associated brand) easier to remember.

Activity in the cortex: with the exclusive use of data, only 2 parts of the brain are activated, while a well-told story also activates the motor, sensory and frontal cortex.

To explain how to apply all this knowledge and create stories that connect with your reader-client, let me tell you about the Rokia case in the next practical chapter, where I will also share with you the keys to an intelligent storytelling strategy.

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