It’s safe to say we’ve all cried at a tragic movie scene, laughed out loud at a friend’s dinner table tale, or felt enraged reading a well-written sentence in a novel. What’s interesting to note here, is that these causes of emotion are all different story forms, not present-moment reality. By definition, stories are accounts of things that happened in the past, or, they’re creations of our imaginations.
How Stories Illicit Bio-Chemical Responses
Stories hit us harder than facts and statements is because they bewitch our brains. They do so by activating more than twice as many processing and reaction centers in our brains, including emotional reactions, imagining sensations, and our motor cortex. What this results in is very visceral changes in physiology like sweaty palms, racing pulses, and heightened attention.
At this point, it can be hard to tell where a story ends and we begin because there’s been transference from the external story to our internal reality. Our bodies are telling us that we’re in real danger of being destroyed by the dragon and that we care very deeply about the courageous main character who’s trying to save everyone.
Enter oxytocin. Any story worth our time will trigger a release of this love hormone/empathy drug that bonds us to fictional characters, invests us in magical outcomes, and changes our behavior. It’s easy to see how this biological cascade can be used for good or evil.
This study shows how using the power of story to increase oxytocin levels in viewers of Public Service Announcements led to an average 56% increase in charitable donations. Of course, the same mechanism is employed in politics and propaganda to otherize, illicit fear, and control.
Using The Power of Story for Good
Knowing the biological power of a good story is empowering because we can lean on it when trying to teach, help, or ask for support or contribution to a cause. This knowledge also enables us to be more discerning about what information we want to engage with or choose to avoid.
As Tahir Shah states: “Stories are a communal currency of humanity.” It’s a choice to use that currency to do good in the world.