The Science Behind Storytelling: When You Give a Brain a Story

We all consume stories on a daily basis, whether that be a friend’s account of their weekend, a popular TV show, or a harrowing report on the news. Storytelling is so deeply ingrained in us that you might not think twice about your body’s reaction to it. The science behind storytelling explains those reactions. It clues us in on why stories resonate on multiple levels and motivate certain behaviors.

Mirror Neurons

Thanks to our handy mirror neurons, the brain activity of storytellers and listeners begin to sync up as a story unfolds. Our brain lights up like the night sky. Fiction and reality seem to converge as we become entrenched in characters’ lives. Their peril is our peril and their joy is our joy. 

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Imagine you’re reading a fantasy novel and the protagonist, whom you’ve come to adore, is fleeing a ruthless demon. You don’t sit there unbothered as you turn the pages, distanced from the danger. How boring would that be? You brace yourself like you’re the one being chased.

If the protagonist outruns the demon and lives to see another day, or page, rather, the reward center of your brain is activated, releasing dopamine. 

You have become one with the story, your emotions linked to the plot and its characters.

According to Berkley’s Greater Good Magazine, this immersive phenomenon is called “transportation,” when stress (release of cortisol) meets empathy (release of oxytocin). A fun way to think of it is that it’s like you are teleporting into the story to survive alongside its characters as an active participant rather than a bystander.

Cortisol and Oxytocin’s Roles

The main characters in the science behind storytelling are cortisol and oxytocin.

Aside from causing your heart-rate to skyrocket and your palms to sweat when stressed, cortisol sharpens and focuses attention. It keeps us engaged during a well-executed story. 

Cortisol also helps with the formation of memories, lending stories that vital “sticky” quality. 

Then there’s cortisol’s sweet partner in crime, oxytocin.

Known by many as the “love hormone,” oxytocin is crucial to how we process stories. It enriches and strengthens connections, as well as one’s sense of empathy. This may come as a surprise to those who associate oxytocin with childbirth and physical touch.

Being emotionally touched and visualizing characters’ interactions is enough, our brains reacting in the same way to this imagined stimuli, releasing oxytocin.

For example, when you reach the climactic point in many stories where the main character has a grand reunion, such as with an estranged parent or a lover, it’s quite likely that your body will release oxytocin.

The hug may not be real, but to your brain, it is.

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In more real-world story scenarios, these brain processes work in extraordinary ways, inciting change and influencing behavior.

How Engaging Narratives Spark Action

In a study done by Paul Zak, it was found that “emotionally engaging narratives inspire post-narrative actions.” This was tested using two films of a father and his son. (It is to be noted that the son had cancer.)

Participants who watched a film showing the father speaking about his terminally ill son while the son played in the background had increased levels of cortisol and oxytocin in their blood after viewing.

However, participants who watched a less emotional film of the father and son walking around a zoo with no mention of cancer—though the boy was bald—did not show an increase in cortisol or oxytocin, and they did not report feeling empathy for the pair. 

I bet you can guess which of the two groups of participants donated to the struggling father.

(Yes, the first group is correct.)

A Marketing Lens

If we look at Zak’s study through the lens of marketing, it’s clear that telling a compelling story can positively affect how your brand is perceived and how fervently it is supported. “Compelling” is the key word. A flat narrative, like the zoo film in Zak’s study, is ineffective.

The power of storytelling hinges upon its delivery.

Most consumers won’t be especially motivated to try out your brand if all you give them is a dry batch of stats. Give them meaning, give them stakes, give them drama, give them humanity. 

The science behind storytelling is all the proof you need that engaging narratives should be woven into your marketing strategies.

Light up consumers’ brains to gain their business. 


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