How stories release chemicals and emotions in our brain
“Nine months have passed,” David JP Phillips begins.
He sits in a chair on the Tedx stage. He speaks slowly. His voice is soft.
“The little brother who was five years of age at that point was really looking forward to what’s going to happen,” David remembers. “He was going to become a big brother.
“And he had helped us pick out the wallpaper, had helped choose the bed linen. He even saved his own pocket money to buy a little stuffed animal which was placed on the pillowcase,” David remembers.
Then, two days before the planned cesarean, “something wasn’t right,” David recalls. “And the day before there was simply no movement in the stomach.”
He remembers rushing to the hospital. He remembers the doctor checking his wife’s stomach.
“There was no heartbeat. You couldn’t feel or hear anything at all.”
“This is me nine years ago. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.”
“Can you just imagine what you have to tell — how you tell that to a five-year-old? Can you just imagine, because he’s home there waiting in anticipation for this coming event?”
The audience sits in total silence.
“To handle that, I talked about it. And I’ve talked to you about it now,” he shares.
Why does David share this story?
To demonstrate the power of storytelling to create empathy.
When we tell stories like the one above, the audience literally experiences the story as if it were happening to them.
“Researchers now know that a thought can elicit a ‘somatic state, meaning the thought triggers the same regions of the brain that would be activated if you were actually experiencing the event in real life,” Carmine Gallo writes in The Storytellers Secret.
What makes this happen?
The brain releases the chemical oxytocin, which is the second ingredient of what David calls “the Angel’s Cocktail” of brain chemicals which explain why stories impact us in such a powerful way.
Yesterday, we looked at the effects of dopamine when we hear something suspenseful. Oxytocin makes us feel empathy toward another person.
“Oxytocin is the most beautiful hormone of all, because you feel humane,” David says. “You become more generous, you trust me more and you bond to me.”
As storytellers, how do we evoke these feelings in our audience?
We create empathy for the hero of our story. Which often this involves sharing their vulnerabilities. It’s the reason Superman has kryptonite.
What’s the third and final ingredient of David’s “Angel’s Cocktail” of powerful brain chemicals?
How do we create endorphins?
By making people laugh. Laughter makes us more creative, more relaxed, and even more focused.
Dopamine. Oxytocin. Endorphins. For storytellers, The Angel’s Cocktail.
D-O-E. Or, doe.
Reflection: Think of a favorite character from a movie, book, or show. How does author or screenwriter create empathy for the character?
Action: In an upcoming presentation, tell a story and create empathy for the character.