What storytellers can learn from neuroscience

Adam Westbrook
10 min readMay 9, 2019

The chemistry of emotion and how Hitchcock controls our minds

Image © Adam Westbrook

We’ve always known stories transport people into new worlds. Now, thanks to MRI technology and biochemistry we are able to see that happening inside the brain. But what can storytellers learn from the scientists reading our minds?

There’s nothing more English than a summer wedding in the countryside. An old church, the bride in a beautiful dress…and a scientist taking blood samples.

If you’ve ever wondered what lengths scientists will go to for data, crashing a wedding is probably near the top. But that’s what Dr Paul Zak, from the Center for Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University, found himself doing not long ago.

“I didn’t know a soul there,” he says “and I tried to talk them out of it.” Luckily the bride was a science journalist and had been convinced by her editor to set the table for one extra guest.

Dr Zak took blood samples from the bride, the groom and the mother of the bride at several points throughout the day. He tested for the hormone Oxytocin.

“I mean you couldn’t make up data this good — it’s perfect.” Dr Zak tells me from California. He reveals the bride had the highest levels of the hormone, followed by her mother, feathering out through the rest of the wedding party.

Oxytocin is just one of a handful of chemicals released into our brains that have a direct effect on how we feel. And now scientists are exploring the effect storytelling has on the release of these chemicals.

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These are ancient hormones and it’s no surprise that storytelling is something that humans evolved to do very early on.

In his book Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell and Live the Best Stories Will Rule The Future, Jonah Sachs reminds us that stories were how early humans conveyed dangers or warnings to others: they were vital for survival. Evolution takes it from there. “Whether you’re hunting on the savannah or choosing between millions of videos on…



Adam Westbrook

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity. https://adamwestbrook.substack.com/