Storytelling, Dramatic Arc and Neurochemistry

Classic Dramatic Arc: exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement

Classic Dramatic Arc: exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement (Source: Aeon Video)

What does neuroscience have to do with storytelling? What do cortisol and oxytocin have to do with a narrative’s dramatic arc? Perhaps everything!

“Stories that fail to follow the dramatic arc of rising action/climax/denouement—no matter how outwardly happy or pleasant those stories may be—elicit little if any emotional or chemical response…” ~ Dr. William Casebeer (Source: Future of Storytelling)

Too elementary? Too pedantic? Not so quick.

Paul Zak, an econ./psych./mgmt. professor at Claremont Graduate University has lifted the cranial hood on stellar storytelling and discovered that the dramatic arc powers effective storytelling.

“Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.” ~ Paul Zak (Source: Brain Pickings)

Here’s the video you want to watch. And rewatch. And just possibly forward to your writing teachers, partners, mentors,…

Empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc Neuroscience suggests that the classic dramatic arc can change our brains and spur us to action. In this 6-minute documentary, a neuroscientist’s study suggests that the classic dramatic arc can change our brains and spur us to action. (Paul Zak, Future of StoryTelling 2012)

Here’s a tidy summary if you prefer reading to watching a video:

In this animated exploration of one of his most illuminating experiments, [Paul] Zak discusses the surprisingly calculable effects that the classic dramatic arc (exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement) has on our brain chemistry and, ultimately, on our decisions and actions.

Monitoring the brain activity of hundreds of study subjects watching a video with a simple narrative, Zak found increases in the levels of the neurochemicals oxytocin and cortisol, which are associated with empathic responses. Most remarkable, however, was the discovery that this response also resulted in study subjects taking action, in this case through donating money they had just earned to a charitable cause related to the story they watched and even to fellow subjects. Zak’s conclusion that there could be a universal story structure that functions to connect us to each other might not be surprising to storytellers, but seeing it supported by neuroscience is a tale worth repeating. (Source: Aeon Video)

Indeed. Repeating and practicing. Thanks, Paul Zak for confirming what we storytellers already knew (or claim to know) but sometimes overlook. Or ignore. At our narrative’s peril!