Storytelling and Neural Coupling

This post is based on a section by the same name in Humans are Underrated:  What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will  by Geoff Colvin.  When we hear a story in one particular form the speaker’s and the listener’s brains align.  We not only experience the story but we also are having the same experience.  The same parts of the brain are being energized in teller and listener, that is, there is neural coupling.  The brains of the storyteller and hearer light up not just in areas controlling speech and language, but also  in areas known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful communication, include the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires and goals of others, which is empathy.  This phenomenon becomes even stronger when a storyteller is speaking  to several listeners, when similar brain activity is induced across different individuals.

The best stories can be identified by the presence of the chemical oxytocin.  This chemical has a range of intensely emotional effects.  It makes us more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.  Some have called it the “love hormone,” others the “bonding hormone.”  It is called the “moral molecule” because it makes us more sensitive to social cues around us.  It often makes more inclined to gel others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.  Therefore it is the neurochemical responsible for empathy.  Our pituitary gland  releases oxytocin when a good story is heard.  It is interesting to note that Descartes thought the the pituitary gland housed the soul.

People were shown a short film of  a true story of a two-year-old with brain cancer, whom we’ll call Ben, and his father, whom we’ll call John Doe.  John Doe’s father’s life is pretty ordinary until he learns that Ben has cancer.  Ben does not know that he has brain cancer.    The father is conflicted because he knows that Ben will die within months, but his sadness merely deprives Ben of Joy he could otherwise have.  Ben’s father finally finds the courage within himself to be joyful around Ben, genuinely grateful for the gift of the child’s brief life.  The conflict is resolved and Ben’s father is changed.

This film has been shown to hundreds of people.  The oxytocin levels in their bloom were measured both before and after viewing the film.  The film make the oxytocin levels rise.  The research subjects are paid for their time and for being stuck twice with needles to draw blood, yet they were very willing to give some or all of their money to a childhood cancer charity, depending on how much oxytocin their pituitary glands had released.

Another film was shown to a different audience depicting Ben and his father visiting a zoo.  Ben has no hair and his father refers to him as “miracle boy.”  It is clear that we are watching a father and son, and that the son has cancer.  The film has a narrative of them doing a variety of things at the zoo, but there is no story.  The brain chemistry of the viewers did not vary and they did not become notably generous to the charity.  This film had no impact.

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