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Why do our brains demand a narrative?

by Diana Kelly

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Ever wonder why some stories resonate so much you’re thinking about them days later, while others make you zone out immediately? Your attention span may be partially to blame, but there are other factors at play.

To learn more about how our brains respond to stories, I spoke with Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., Neuroeconomist, president of ZESTx Labs, whose research labs have spent years studying why stories move us and how they can change our brains for the better.

The evolutionary purpose of stories

Highly immersive stories can place us in a state of captivation, says Zak. “There’s a real interesting neurologic trick in which we begin to embed ourselves in the story.”

That means we may experience sadness when characters are sad and we may feel elated when they survive against other odds. “Stories give us opportunities to live in other people’s lives and to experience what they might be experiencing and that’s a very powerful opportunity to learn about worlds that we haven’t been in yet,” says Zak.

He adds that: “Stories draw on our deep social nature.” So stories that are highly immersive, essentially, are human conflict tales. Even animated pictures (and Headspace animations) can engage a listener if they’re emotionally compelling.

How in-person storytelling compares to listening

As social creatures, we’re fascinated by the other humans. “Our brain gets value of out having those human interactions, even if they’re virtual interactions and they occur via a movie or via a book,” says Zak. From the brain’s perspective, stories can serve the same purpose. “When we measure brain activity when people actually interact with each other and when they interact with a highly immersive story, we see almost identical brain activation,” says Zak.

In-person interaction may include more for the senses to feast on: body language, smells, and posture. “For those reasons, I wouldn’t want to say ‘story’ is a good replacement for [those in-person factors],” says Zak. Even online interactions—Twitter, Skype, etc.—can trigger the same kind of activations in the brain.

“When you’re attending to that information, you get this oxytocin connection response in the brain. It doesn’t take much interaction because we’re evolved to be so highly social,” says Zak. You might know of oxytocin as the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone” which is released during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding, but this neurochemical is also responsible for empathy and narrative transportation, Zak’s research discovered.

Oxytocin makes us more sensitive to moral cues around us, says Zak. And when a story evokes the oxytocin production in others, they may be more engaged in the story and to you.

Technology and story interaction

Zak is uncertain whether technology can change how our brains respond to stories.

“What we find is the activations in the brain—they’re almost identical. So I think from the brain’s perspective, any social interaction appears to be valuable. And from a brain perspective, valuable means that I’m not only creating activation in the brain, but I’m potentially learning something from that. So it may be entertaining but also somehow preparatory for my future. When we looked at social media activation, we get the same thing, very similar activations. So we don’t know if it’s changing the brain, but we do know that we love social interaction, and stories are one way to get to that,” he says.

“No matter what we’re doing, we need community. And I think story is kind of a substitute temporary community that we get to enter,” said Zak. Through social media and online communities, we have another point of entry to build personal relationships. So if you’re following Headspace on social media, you may feel a stronger connection to a Twitter follower, for example, who’s tweeting a Headspace article. You’re both part of the same community and perhaps you’ll give that story more ‘weight’ in your mind than if you came across it somewhere else.

How to tell a compelling story

Before Zak delivered his TED talk, “Trust, morality, and Oxytocin”, he was given the “TED Commandments” to help ensure he’d present an engaging talk (“They’re actually pretty good tips on storytelling,” says Zak.) The commandments shared many of the same principles his lab discovered on storytelling.

  • Show real emotion

“So if I’m telling a story and [it] reveals something about myself that shows my own abilities or weaknesses, that’s actually very appealing—we really like it when people are open and vulnerable,” says Zak. When we listen to someone showing a vulnerable side, it can produce oxytocin, leading to feelings of empathy for the speaker.

You may not have been taught or encouraged to share emotion in your upbringing. “I think, in my experience, the people who … are aware of their own internal faiths are much better at sharing emotion and even regulating that emotion. I think for people who meditate, they have a leg up on this, which is having this sort of genuine authenticity about one’s self,” says Zak. [Editor’s Note: if you want to get started on that leg up, check out the Basics of meditation.]

  • Share a problem

Stories that are only self-serving or unrelatable get old fast for people, Zak and his research team discovered. “But tell me about a problem you have or a weird interaction you’ve had, and we find in lots of experiments, those stories where someone faces conflict are much more engaging.”

  • Captivate with a story arc

When you want someone to remember a story, try to incorporate a narrative arc. A classic story starts with a mystery or an unusual event. And if it builds tension and finds resolution it is very well designed to keep us engaged, says Zak. If a story is emotionally flat, merely factual, delivered in a monotone, without energy or emotion, then we may be less inclined to pay attention, he says.

If you’ve practiced meditation, you can appreciate that attention is a scarce resource

“If you really want to engage with someone, tell a story that is engaging, has real emotion, builds tension, and resolves that tension,” says Zak. If that story relates to others or is useful, while sharing something about yourself or something you’ve experienced, even better suggests Zak.

How stories change the brain

Neurologically, stories can be a very pleasurable experience, says Zak. So pleasurable, that for an hour after a really immersive story you can be persuaded to act in response to the story, whether that involves exercise, weight loss, or beginning a meditation practice. “Research is showing that stories physically change the way the brain is working, and when you’re in this changed state then it’s possible to change your life experiences,” says Zak.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.


Artwork by CHRIS MARKLAND

Diana Kelly

Diana Kelly is a Manhattan-based freelance journalist and editor with over 12 years experience writing for national health and lifestyle brands. She enjoys running half-marathons, dance classes, strength training, and trying new foods in the company of friends. She also sets meditation goals of practicing four to five times a week. Learn more about Diana at DianaKelly.com or follow her on Twitter @DianaKelly.

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