Storytelling for dollars, sense and cortisol

Fiona Wright

Friday 26 February 2016.

Stories not only help us make sense of the world – they stimulate our brains in ways that emulate a direct experience of what we encounter in a narrative.

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers. She’s sassy and political, alert to our world and its technologies, and both of their possible futures; she tells a ripping yarn to boot. She’s also keenly interested in neuroscience and psychology – so there are few people better placed to contemplate the function and importance of telling stories:

‘Storytelling is part of being human – you can’t separate it from being a human being. Whether you call it “professional storytelling” or not, everybody is telling a Story of My Life to themselves all the time.’

What Atwood is arguing here, is essentially that storytelling is the primary means that we have to make sense of the world and of our selves, the things that happen to us and the things that matter to us. It is narrative that turns plain and ordinary stuff, into stuff that matters.

Over the past few years Pure and Applied has worked with several cultural institutions who have each been making the shift to story as way to engage with their collection. A board member of one put it simply:

There’s gotta be story. If you haven’t got a story nobody gives a rats.

Nobody gives a rats, that is, about whatever it is that you’re offering, unless you can transform it from a thing, inert and undifferentiated from all the similar things that surround it, into an engaging, affective story.

Because we need stories. They’re a part of many of our most basic motivations and desires. The developmental psychologist Abraham Maslow theorised that all of the things we want and that drive our behaviour can be traced back to five essential human needs – for physical requirements for survival, then for safety, then for a sense of belonging, then esteem and self-actualisation.

Aside from the physiological needs – essentially food, water and shelter – each these requirements is usually met, at least in part, by stories. We tell stories to reassure ourselves that we are safe and share them with the people around us to build a sense of belonging and love. We tell stories about ourselves to earn respect and to build our sense of our selves – our esteem – and as acts of creativity and expression, or self-actualisation. Storytelling is very much a basic human need.

So it’s unsurprising that stories are hard-wired into our very brains. Recent research has found that the same neurological regions are stimulated in the brain when a person reads about an experience and encounters it in real life. Reading about making a cup of tea, for example, lights up the same parts of the brain as those activated when actually putting on the kettle.

Which means that the brain makes no physical distinction between what we experience when we empathise with characters and what we experience when we step out into the world.

Storytelling is effective precisely because it affects our brains.

Other researchers, from the Centre for Neuroeconomic Studies, have found that the brain also has a biochemical reaction to any narrative that follows the traditional structure – of initial exposition, followed by increasing action, a climax, then decreasing action, and a conclusion or denouement – first theorised by the dramatist and critic Gustav Freytag in 1863.

As a story develops towards its climax, and eventual resolution, the brain responds by releasing cortisol and oxytocin into the bloodstream. Cortisol is responsible for increasing focus and attention in the brain, while oxytocin stimulates empathy, connection and care. This means that stories matter to us on a physiological level, that we are conditioned to connect with them, to pay attention to them, and to care.

The economic implication of this research – which is about neuroeconomics, after all – is that further experiments found that people were more likely to donate money, and in larger amounts, after being told a traditionally-structured story about a charity or cause. Which means that there’s a behavioural benefit to story-telling too – which is good news for our clients.

Storytelling leads to conversions. So, do something for your business – go, tell some stories.

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Program & Content

Pure and Applied’s Program & Content team can help with your storytelling.

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