This Is Your Brain on Stories

This Is Your Brain on Stories

Humans are storytelling creatures. We can’t get enough of the stuff. From a predisposition to binge watch 5 seasons of a show in one weekend to getting the office gossip over lunch break, stories lure us in and enthrall us. Lucky for you, if your Catfish marathon got in the way of finishing that report, on Monday you can just blame your brain.

Stories produce a lovely cocktail of neurotransmitters that keep us coming back for more. According to research by neuroeconomist Paul Zak, the fun starts during the tense part of the story. Your breath catches as the lovely leading lady starts to board the plane. This is thanks to the stress neurotransmitter cortisol, streamlining our attention to the looming danger that these two soul mates may lose each other.

You are zoned in thanks to good ol’ cortisol and then, BAM! The dashing Ryan/Tom/Paul is breaking every TSA law and makes it to his Emma/Meg/Alicia. This display of kindness and the confirmation that everything is right in the world slams you with a big dose of the warm and fuzzies. More traditionally, this is referred to as oxytocin, which causes feelings of trust, connection, and empathy. We feel connected, are now INVESTED in finding out if she goes to Paris (she is always going to Paris). I mean, sure it SOUNDS cute, but this stuff is seriously strong. In a study by Zak, people were asked how to spilt some money with a stranger, including the option not to give them any. Those who had been infused with some oxytocin were 80% more generous than their non-infused counterparts.

As if your noggin wasn’t already buzzing at this point, the happy music cues and your favorite white folks are riding off into the sunset. This happy ending jolts you with a hit of dopamine (who you may recognize from other cult classics like gambling, drug, and sex addictions). Dopamine makes us feel good, like really, REALLY good, so we keep coming back to see the next How to Lose 27 Dresses on the Holiday to La La Land.

The power of stories is formidable -- so much so that even people beyond Nora Ephron are taking notice. From marketing executives trying to get you to spend a buck to medical professionals using that sad little stone to sell you antidepressants, stories are used to make an impact. A study done by University of Massachusetts Medical School showed that storytelling was effective in convincing patients with hypertension to change their behaviors to reduce their blood pressure.  If you have ever had a New Year’s Resolution to “be healthier,” you get HOW IMPRESSIVE THAT IS.

So kids, start practicing those anecdotes and keep in mind the words of one of my favorite superhero stories, “with great power come great responsibility.”

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