Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that hearing a story—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human ability to connect, empathize, and understand. Story is literally in our DNA.
People are attracted to stories, we’re social creatures and we relate to other people, says Keith Quesenberry in the Harvard Review. It’s no surprise. We humans have been communicating through stories for upwards of 20,000 years, back when our flat screens were cave walls.
Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Zak’s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine, which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.
Life happens in the narratives we tell one another. A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.
Science tells us the reasons why stories are essential in a person’s life. In the story Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez, Crow says— The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.
My work has brought me the gift of witnessing and being part of how stories repair a spirit in disarray.