Story Telling

Our old generation has already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. However, recent scientific research shows how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. An interesting and emotionally moving film or novel will project ourselves into stories or we might identify with a specific character. We might even feel the emotions that the characters experience. A fictional character’s death may induce us a feeling of loss as if we are experiencing a real loss. Children the world over are delighted in stories and start shaping their own worlds as kids. Story is so central to the lives of children that it comes close to defining their very existence. Children pay much closer attention when someone tells them a story rather than teaches them straight out of a textbook.

Hormonal Basis of Storytelling:

Hormones are chemicals produced by different glands of the human body; passing through the bloodstream and playing a part in many biological processes. Four hormones are known to help promote positive feelings, including happiness and pleasure. They are four major chemicals in the brain that influence our happiness and they are abbreviated as DOSE: Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, Endorphins.

Dopamine is involved more with anticipation than the actual “happiness” feeling; it is a striving emotion. Dopamine is allied with pleasurable sensations, along with learning, memory, motor system function, and more. Storytelling is always something we suspect and are waiting for, causing the release of dopamine. When dopamine is released into blood, it engenders to more focus, motivation, and improved memory.  Stories with intense situations can upsurge dopamine levels. Dopamine causes the audience to really feel something which will help with: focus, memory and motivation. In order to yield Dopamine we need to tell a story that tempers interest with a hook or twist. This can be done with an interesting question or a suspenseful statement during the beginning of the story. Dopamine is often called the pleasure hormone and is released when we anticipate a reward – like the happy ending or life lesson we receive at the end of a good story. Further, the hormone helps us find meaning in the story’s message, which we’ll remember long after the niceties have faded.

Oxytocin is usually called the “love hormone,” and is essential for childbirth, breastfeeding, and strong parent-child bonding. Oxytocin makes us feel empathy which helps us feel close and bonded to others when it has been released. Empathy is imperative for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation. Oxytocin levels usually increase with physical affection like kissing, cuddling, and sex. Oxytocin is most often called the “mothering” hormone, since it stimulates empathy and pro-social behaviors like collaboration and teamwork. Similarly, stories activate the release of oxytocin as we build relationships with the characters, which make us care about the message of the story. Further, oxytocin promotes social bonding, and it lowers blood pressure; it can dilate your blood vessels so that your heart actually receives more oxygen. So, as a giver your oxytocin levels increase, your blood vessels dilate, and your cardiovascular health improves. So, kindness can be considered as cardio-protective. It literally protects the heart and strengthens your immune system. In order to produce Oxytocin, we need to tell stories that jerk at the heart strings and make the audience feel more human; being honest in your stories will be a major factor in triggering Oxytocin.

The effects of oxytocin make us more generous and ready to bond; this is released in blood when we hear a sad story; it makes us more human as we bond to the storyteller. Truly, in storytelling, we create empathy in whatever character you build.

Serotonin hormone helps regulate your mood as well as your sleep, appetite, digestion, learning ability, and memory. Serotonin creates good, whose absence creates bad mood. 80 percent of serotonin exists in the gut, and is governed by one’s state of hunger and this is the reason why we are all hungry.

The role of endorphins is also significant; we create endorphins by making people laugh and make people feel more creative, relaxed, and focused.

These chemicals together create desirable brain states. The releases of DOSE neurochemicals make us happy, which tempts us to demand more.

Using the Vital Knowledge of the Science of Hormones:

When attending a presentation with full of data, facts and bullet points, the language parts of the brain work alone to decode the words into its meaning. However, when the same information can be conveyed by means of some sort of a story the brain responds in an altered manner. Not only does the brain decode the language, but it further activates other parts that are related to the subjects of the story! So, behind a good story lies a lot of chemical sciences and this might be put to better use in your corporate videos, advertisements, or presentations. That is why a good speaker often uses a good story in her communication in order to connect with people on a deeper level.

Other significant tips might be to include a little bit of humor, make the story relatable, explore current themes and use pleasant background music; the audience will remember the story and therefore be more likely to remember the message. The end result will be good communication.

It is a proven fact that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts. This is the reason why we can recall stories told to us from years ago, yet fail to remember a simple fact we heard a week ago. Telling stories was a powerful tool when it came to sharing information; they were humanity’s first method of passing knowledge down through generations. If we want to prompt the audience into action during your next campaign, we need to tell stories since storytelling has a way of fetching the brain in ways other forms of communication simply can’t.

Great storytellers are conscious of the science involved in storytelling and they often use it to their advantage. What makes stories so much more effective are the emotions that can be formed when hearing a story? These emotions can teach essential moral lessons, and inspire imaginative thinking. The storyteller evokes emotions; receptors in the brain react to the words we hear. This is the science of storytelling and knowing the method of its use to prompt emotion through stories is a great skill. Stories stimulate more brain activity because of the connections made and emotions felt when listening to a story.

In order to motivate a yearning to help others, a story must first sustain attention – which is now in the process of dwindling, even reaching 40 percent decrease in the last 20 years. If the story is able to create that pressure then it is likely that attentive listeners will come to share the emotions.

Neuroimaging studies show that stories light up many brain areas, including those responsible for sensation, movement, memory, emotion, and more – and through a process called “neural coupling”, the brain activity of story-listeners mirrors that of story-tellers. Listening to your colleagues’ stories allows you to actually share in their experience, which builds connection and helps you internalize the mindsets and behaviors they demonstrate in their stories. 1  Stories follow a recognizable arc: a familiar pattern our brains can latch onto. Research by neuroscientists like Paul Zak shows the story arc triggers the release of specific neurotransmitters – cortisol, oxytocin, and dopamine – which help us focus on, care about, and remember the message of a story.2

Building a story around data to showcase it in a meaningful way will further reinforce the message. Storytellers must index their stories, so as to know which creates laughter, empathy, or intensity.  By choosing the right story, she can control the hormones that are released. The combination of Cortisol (attention), Oxytocin (empathy), and Dopamine (memory) the listener can be led into feeling a certain way and even be directed to a certain behavior.

How Storytelling Develops Empathy?:

Humans are creatures of story, as story touches almost every aspect of our lives. Archaeologists dig up clues in the stones and bones and formulate into a saga about the past. Historians, too, are, more than anything else, storytellers.

Neuroscience has already proved that humans buy primarily on emotion and then justify their purchase using logic. This information is most vital not only in business but also in the propagation of ideas. Due to the realization of storytelling, business executives are increasingly told that they must be creative storytellers: they have to make compelling narratives about their products. Political commentators see an election not only as a contest between politicians and their ideas but also as a struggle between differing stories about the nation’s past and future. Legal scholars imagine a trial as a story contest in which opposing counsels create narratives of guilt and innocence—disputing over who is the real hero and villain.

Children are born with instinctive empathy. That is why an infant cries at the sound of another’s cry; the infant feels the pain the other is experiencing, that is empathy in its embryonic form.

From that point, each child will develop differently based on their environment and experiences. Storytelling has proven to play a major role in the development of empathy in children.

The following are the major benefits of Storytelling to Children: it helps children develop empathy, help encourage creativity and imagination, fosters a sense of belonging to the world for children, helps children learn about themselves and others in different cultures, times, places, or situations.

Good stories are explorations of the human condition; thrilling voyages into foreign minds. They’re not so much about events that take place on the surface of the drama as they are about the characters that have to battle them. Those characters, when we meet them on page one, are never perfect. What arouses our curiosity about them, and provides them with a dramatic battle to fight, is not their achievements or their winning smile. It’s their flaws. 3 Good stories have a kind of ignition point. It’s that wonderful moment in which we find ourselves sitting up in the narrative, suddenly attentive, our emotions switched on, curiosity and tension sparked. This often occurs when we sense an unexpected change has taken place in the plot that sends tremors to the core of the protagonist’s flawed theory of control. Because it goes to the heart of their particular flaw, this event will cause them to behave in an unexpected way. They’ll overreact or do something otherwise odd. This is our subconscious signal that the fantastic spark between character and event has taken place. The story has begun. 4

Bibliography:

  1. Hasson U, Frith CD. 2016 Mirroring and beyond: coupled dynamics as a generalized framework for modeling social interactions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371: 20150366
  2. Zak, Paul J, Why inspiring stories make us react: the neuroscience of narrative. Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science vol. 2015 2. 2 February 2015
  3. Will Storr, The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Better, London: William Collins, 2019, p.33
  4. Ibid, p.47

Biographical sketch:

V.A. Mohamad Ashrof is one among the Muslim scholars of Kerala who is regularly publishing articles and papers dealing with Islam and Contemporary Affairs. He has worked as the Executive Editor of Al-Harmony, a Quarterly Journal on Islam and Thought and Ethics, for 10 years. He is the joint secretary of Forum for Faith and Fraternity- a Muslim think tank based in Kochi. He is the author of 2 English Books (‘Islamic Dimensions’, ‘Islam and Gender Justice: Questions at the Interface’) and 2 Malayalam books (The Host and the Hunter: Critique of Anand’s writings). One Malayalam book ‘Christian Zionism: Critique’ has attained great acclamation from the scholarly world.

(V.A. Mohamad Ashrof is the Joint Secretary of Forum for Faith and Fraternity Kerala and receives his mail at: vamashrof@gmail.com)


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