Better Than Mind Reading

Hacking brain chemistry with storytelling

3 min. read

I’m fascinated by tattoos. 

Maybe because I don’t have any.

But in my experience, there’s always a story. 

I mean what is a tattoo if not evidence of a string of decisions?

Occasionally I overcome my introversion and ask strangers about their ink. 

Once I was at a restaurant with my family in Farmington, Utah. 

The waitress delivered our food, filled our drinks, and I noticed the tattoo on her arm. 

It wasn’t like any tattoo I’d ever seen before. 

There was no calligraphy, no silhouettes, no flowers, no filigree, or kanji.

It was a bunch of hexagons strung together like a disjointed honeycomb running up her forearm.

She caught me staring, so I asked her, “What’s your tattoo?”

Pulling up her sleeve she explained, “It’s the chemical diagram for Oxytocin. That’s the hormone that bonds mothers to their children and makes people feel euphoric and happy.”

What does Oxytocin Have to Do With Storytelling?

Don’t know what I was expecting. 

But it wasn’t a lesson in both human biology and psychology.

And wrapped in her story was another story, also about oxytocin.

A decade ago Paul Zak published research about how our brain reacts to storytelling. 

There are many versions of the dramatic arc, from the Hero’s Journey to the three-act narrative structure. But something they all have in common is characters that experience a stressor and a resolution, often repeating with more severity to a final climax and denouement. 

This is what we mean when we talk about story structure. 

There’s a beginning (status quo), a middle (stress), and an end (resolution).

Zak’s research noted that as we hear, read, or watch a story that follows this structure, the brain releases cortisol during stressful moments, and then synthesizes oxytocin during the resolution. 

This pattern, cortisol followed by oxytocin is a magic formula.

It is highly rewarding. 

And it causes us to empathize with the characters in the story.

We think the thoughts they are thinking and we feel the emotions they feel.

It’s one of the reasons we love stories. 

We love them around the campfire, at the movies, when we get together with friends. We watch the news, doom scroll social media, and rubberneck on the freeway just to find more stories.

We can’t get enough. 

We are desperate to know what happens.

How to Use the Magic Formula

Our brain chemistry responds to stories and opens us up to new thoughts and feelings that we have never experienced in person for ourselves

And stories are the essential form of marketing communication. They can be as short as a headline or as long as a novel.

Zak and his team were able to show that they could even predict behavior. 

They paid participants $20. They showed one group a story of a father and his son, where the father knew the boy was dying of cancer. In another, the father and son take a trip to the zoo and there is no mention at all of the boy’s peril. 

When the story elicited the cortisol-oxytocin combo, participants responded by donating an average of $10 when asked if they would like to donate to a children’s health organization. 

When it didn’t, people kept their money.

Just think about how we use case studies: 

It’s more than just social proof. Done right, a case study follows the dramatic arc. A character faces a problem, which they overcome with the help of a product. If this story relates to the reader, they will empathize with the character in the case study.

Whatever feelings the case study protagonist has will be transmitted to the audience.

Wait, Say That Again

This still blows my mind. 

Through stories, we can TRANSMIT the feelings we want the audience to feel.

Let’s play a quick game of “Would You Rather.” 

Would you rather read the prospect’s mind, OR tell them to think and feel whatever you want in the first place?

With stories the mechanism exists to figuratively open up your target audience’s head and put anything you want in there.

Maybe the science fiction of Inception isn’t so far-fetched at all.

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P.S. Maybe you don’t believe me. In the early part of the 20th century, Edward Bernays, the “Father of PR,” did this en masse. The BBC Documentary “Century of the Self” tells this story.

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