Let me share with you a story. Sam is a 10 year old boy who has raised himself. His mother leaves him alone for weeks on end whilst she’s frolicking with the men that come and go like a revolving door. His drug addicted older siblings and their friends subject him to both physical and sexual abuse rather than protection. He doesn’t go to school because there’s no one around to enforce it. Then, in the 11th year of his life, something massive happens: his Dad finally wins the court battle over custody that has been going on for five years. Sam moves in with his Dad and life as he knows it changes. His Dad, a military man, teaches him to read and insists that not only does he go to school daily, but he goes to therapy weekly too. Soon Sam begins to value learning above all else. As the years pass and with his Dad and step-mom’s love and support, Sam blossoms into a highly intelligent and well-adjusted individual. He goes to university and becomes a scientist. He meets the woman of his dreams, marries her, and spends his days plotting to save the world. The life he leads now is so far flung from its origins. He’s learned what it means to live a good life, and actively teaches others how to do the same.
Observe what took place internally as you read that story. Current research has identified what happens to our brains and bodies when we hear a good story: we feel both distress and empathy. Paul Zak’s laboratory in Claremont, California investigates how changing stories change our hormonal responses, and how this affects our behaviours.
Have you noticed how nearly all captivating and compelling stories share the same structure? They follow the dramatic arc, often referred to these days as The Hero’s Journey*. In it there is always a peak point, and preceding it, a valley. This is the structure used for more than 50% of Hollywood films, not to mention countless books, and the majority of the most-watched TED talks. It’s used because this structure elicits both cortisol and oxytocin, the former being the hormonal basis of stress and the latter of empathy.
The regions of the brain most active during this type of story are the areas in the prefrontal cortext associated with theory of mind: regions pertaining to understanding others and our relationship to them. The regions rich in oxytocin receptors were also active, and because oxytocin is the neurochemical that affectively transports you into the story. In this manner, the brain simulates how the character feels, which is why we cry when we watch a sad movie.
When a story does not offer any peaks or valleys, and instead has a flatline structure, people become disengaged. They simply cannot connect with the characters. Dr. Zak and his team discovered that the amount of cortisol and oxytocin released after watching a story with a dramatic arc predicted how much money people would share with strangers, but this did not apply to the flatline story as there was no significant neurochemical change.
In another study which took place in the UK, participants watched public service advertisements and the experimental group was given synthetic oxytocin. They donated to 57% more of the charities featured and 56% more money compared to those in the placebo condition. Additionally, they also reported higher degrees of emotional transportation, and said they were less likely to engage in the behaviors shown in the ads such as drunk driving and drug abuse.
The implications of this are incredibly interesting. Firstly, this research suggests that watching movies, reading books, listening to stories around a campfire, and any other ways of engaging with stories are a valuable way to spend time because they can inspire us to change our behaviors. We behave differently after the story ends, when we have all that cortisol and oxytocin flowing through our bloodstreams. This is why so many people find themselves unable to consume meat and dairy again after watching a documentary that explains the rise of the vegan movement. Stories like that beget compassion, and ultimately they change the way we see the world.
Along those lines, when we change the stories we tell about our own lives, people respond to us differently. When people respond to us differently, we begin to feel differently about ourselves. The flow on effects are exponential! But, it all comes back to the stories we tell. Storyteller Diana McLaren writes:
So what is this story that you are telling yourself? Are you a victim or a hero? Are you the best friend or the main character? When something happens to you how do you react, and why do you react that way? These are the basic questions we have to ask ourselves in order to become more familiar with who we are and what we are. The power of understanding this story is that we can then change it. By changing this story we can become who we want to be. It is a common phrase to say that the difference between whom you are and who you want to be is what you do. But since what you do is based on whom you think you are and what story you’re telling yourself, the power for true change lays in your story.
The research provides a scientific understanding for how changing the inputs change the outputs. So back to Sam’s story. If he focused on the fact that he never spoke to his biological mother again once she was longer receiving child support, it would be a very different story. Instead, Sam leaves that out of the story and directs the audience’s attention elsewhere. He only shares his beginnings to illustrate the contrast, because the lower the valley, the higher the peaks feel. All good stories have hardship and challenge. They are necessary elements to simulate the cortisol and oxytocin required for others to care. How the hero responds to the challenge is the most compelling part of the tale. How are you choosing to respond to yours?
*Gustav Freytag identified the dramatic arc 150 years ago but the term “hero’s journey” was coined by Joseph Campbell in 1949 when he wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces.