What storytellers can learn from neuroscience

The chemistry of emotion and how Hitchcock controls our minds

Image © Adam Westbrook

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.

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 YouTube,” says Sachs, “your brain is programmed to ignore almost everything and hone in only on what is more important or interesting.”

“We’ve identified an attention molecule — and when Oxytocin is released you are more likely to pay attention…and that’s the first step.”

It is only very recently, through MRI scanning, that scientists are beginning to see how this programming really works. Dr Zak has spent years studying Oxytocin, something he has come to name the Moral Molecule.

It’s research that has earned him the name Dr Love.

His research has found Oxytocin levels correspond to how much empathy we feel for someone else — in other words how much we care. With so many factual storytellers desperate for their audience to care about their stories, understanding this could have big implications.

“The best part of stories is that we get transported into that world or into that person’s brain or that person’s experience” says Dr Zak. “We’ve identified an attention molecule — and when Oxytocin is released you are more likely to pay attention…and that’s the first step.”

Part of Dr Zak’s research involved showing a group of people a short film about a young boy who is dying from cancer. The story is narrated by the boy’s father, who tells the audience he is struggling to cope with his son’s illness. How does he truly enjoy his last moments with his son, without feeling desperately sad at the same time?

While measuring each viewer’s levels of Oxytocin, Dr Zak’s team gave each member in the group some cash. After watching the film, they were asked whether they would like to give away any of their money to other strangers in the group. Startlingly, Dr Zak found that those with the highest levels of Oxytocin in their blood were more willing to give money to a stranger.

Those who were most affected by the film released more Oxytocin and were then more generous. They felt more empathy.

Scientists have also observed other activity in the brain which might reveal why we feel empathy for others.

In a laboratory in Italy in the 1990s, scientists were putting monkeys to work, training them to pull a lever, in return for a peanut. They found that some motor neurons in the brain not only fired when the monkeys were pulling a lever, but also when the monkey watched another monkey doing it.

Observing someone else do something fires the same neurons and creates the same feeling as doing it yourself.

These so-called mirror neurons, as Robert Greene explains in his book Mastery are a clue to how humans feel empathy — albeit on a much higher level. “Without any visual cues or any action on the part of others we can place ourselves inside their minds and imagine what they might be thinking.”

“The only way we’re able to survive as social creatures is to have this ability to do this transportation into your feelings and your thoughts. From an evolutionary perspective that’s really adaptive” argues Dr Zak.

The image of early humans foraging for food plays a part in how another chemical is released in our brain. And again, it has a direct link to our experience of storytelling.

Here we travel to Switzerland in the 1980s where another scientist is running tests on monkeys, this time squirting apple juice into their mouths. Wolfram Schulz was measuring the release of a neurotransmitter called Dopamine in the monkey’s brains as they anticipated and received the juice.

Dopamine is often considered a feel good chemical, released to reward the body for doing something good. It is released in what some people call a “Dopamine squirt” usually when you eat, have sex and, it turns out, consume stories.

Except that’s only half the picture. In his lab in Fribourg, Dr Schulz found something interesting with his monkeys. He realised Dopamine is released in higher levels when the monkeys couldn’t be certain they were going to get some apple juice. The experiments where the reward was guaranteed caused a smaller release of the neurotransmitter.

Put simply, Dopamine is actually more about the anticipation of a reward, rather than the reward itself.

Dr Paul Howard Jones, researcher at Bristol University explains this in more detail to Frank Rose in his excellent book The Art of Immersion: “If you get a signal and you know a reward is coming, you get some Dopamine release. If you have no expectation, you get some Dopamine release. But the biggest buzz is when it’s 50–50.”

This has a big implication for the art of storytelling. We know “Dopamine squirts” are addictive and this anticipation has the potential to drive more people to and through our stories — provided we structure them in the right way.

At a keynote speech at Boston University, former New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary explored how this relates to telling factual stories. The experience happens in three stages. First there is a cue, which causes you to do something, then a habit which is that action, and then a reward for completing that habit.

“The simplest way to understand how a habit loop works in online journalism would be to look at the headline as the cue, a click as the habit, and maybe a good read as the reward” she tells the audience.

But it’s not the reward which causes the dopamine squirt as such, but the cue — the anticipation that we might get a good read. O’Leary says there are two things which can work as effective cues: the immediate proposition of value (in other words, read this and you’ll find out something really useful to you) or surprise.

She interviews Charles Duhigg, a fellow New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit. He spells it out very well.

“If you immediately signal narratively that you are going to have surprise within your piece then your piece works. Surprise is the only thing that matters in setting up a narrative structure. You have to set up an expectation, and then you have to violate that expectation.”

Surprise is a story’s way of releasing Dopamine, creating uncertainty and setting up an anticipation of something unexpected.

“When we actively pursue new information — that is, when we want to know what happens next — curiosity rewards us with a flood of Dopamine to keep us reading long after midnight because tomorrow we just might need the insight it will give us” argues Lisa Cron in her book Wired for Story.

We are, says Frank Rose, harking back to our days as foragers, and stories should appeal to those instincts. Dopamine’s evolutionary advantage is that the anticipation of a reward like food — especially without the guarantee we might get it — compelled us to head out into the plains.

“Any narrative that has game-like aspects — which is to say, any story that invites you into its world — can make an appeal to your foraging instincts. We forage for food, for points, for attention, for friends, for the jackpot, for a happy ending, for closure of any sort.”

Cinemas aren’t as comfortable as they used to be, but even the most cramped and hot theatres probably don’t compare to the experience of watching a movie inside an MRI machine.

Luckily for storytellers, some volunteers have been willing to do that, to allow scientists to “see” inside their minds while they’re watching a film. In 2004 a group of them watched the first 30 minutes of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good the Bad and the Ugly, while the scanner made sweeps of their brain activity.

Looking at the data was Assistant Professor in the psychology department at Princeton University, Uri Hasson.

Hasson’s research also suggests that cinematic storytelling devices — montages, pans, and closeups — cause more brain activity.

“We saw that the brain responses of people, while not identical, are very similar across many people” he tells me. “So we started to ask what is driving this similarity.

“Different movies have different levels of control. Some movies really control where you are looking, and some control the way you process dialogue, some control what you expect and predict, what you think.”

Hasson’s research also suggests that cinematic storytelling devices — montages, pans, and closeups — cause more brain activity. To the same group who watched The Good the Bad and the Ugly, he also showed a ten minute video clip, from a fixed position with no edits at all. These did not affect viewers’ brains in the same way.

But it gets really interesting when he brings in the master of suspense himself: Alfred Hitchcock.

Hasson showed his volunteers clips from a 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, called “Bang! You’re Dead” alongside The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and Larry David’s comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The results were stark: Hitchcock stimulated the same response in the brains of 65% of the audience. By comparison Sergio Leone evoked 45% and Larry David 18%. The higher the “inter-subject correlation” in brain activity, the more “control” the storyteller had over their audience.

Hitchcock it seems, could play us like a piano.

According to the published report: “The fact that Hitchcock was able to orchestrate the responses of so many different brain regions turning them on and off at the same time across all viewers, may provide neuro-scientific evidence for his notorious ability to master and manipulate viewers’ minds. Hitchcock liked to tell interviewers than for him “creation is based on an exact science of audience reactions.”

So what’s all this talk of chemicals got to do with storytelling? Can we use this information to craft better stories?

An unexpected side-effect of Dr Zak’s research into Oxytocin and empathy has been a possible explanation for the enduring popularity of the dramatic arc.
His film about the boy with cancer is built around the arc, creating rising tension towards a climax. It is this rising tension, he thinks, which is key to releasing another chemical, ACTH.

This is sometimes known as the “attentional chemical” and keeps us focused.

“It’s a 100 second video,” says Dr Zak, “and around second 20 the father says ‘so Ben is sick’ so now I’m starting to pay attention. And then around second 35 or 40 he says ‘Ben is dying’ — oh now you’ve really got my attention, and second 50 the father transports himself and by extension the listener into Ben’s death. It’s the peak of attention of that dramatic arc.”

So our brains, it seems, respond to this rising arc of tension, culminating in a crisis.

Meanwhile at Princeton University, Uri Hasson’s more recent research backs up the idea that surprise is an important factor in compelling stories.

“If your story is completely unpredictable with you scrambling the sentences, it will never work. It would be very confusing,” says Hasson. “If it is completely predictable, it will be a very boring story. So you need also to find a level in which people are following your predictions and it makes sense to them, and then you surprise them — at this particular moment you break their predictions. So there is an interplay.”

It’s all fascinating reading but should storytellers be using this data to tell stronger stories? And are we risking turning the art of storytelling into a science?

Hasson is keen to point out that this is not their goal. “We are not aiming to tell storytellers how to tell a story. We can only sample and measure the effect of those stories on the mind. First we can understand better how the brain processes this stimuli, and second we can get this information and assess how effective the story was. But they can also just ask the listener if they thought it was a good story, so I’m not sure that they need us.”

Dr Zak thinks understanding the stories we tell can help us understand our minds better. “These molecules are so evolutionarily old that we really don’t have a conscious sense of what they’re doing to us. They’re activating these brain circuits which we’re not fully aware of. Since we’re such a storytelling species, storytelling can really probe the way our brains works.”

This article originally appeared in Issue #1 of Inside The Story Magazine.

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

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