Writing and the Creative Life: Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling (Part 1)

The Harvard Business Review had an interesting article with a series of links I thought would make for a good sets of posts in the Writing and Creative Life series. The article is entitled: Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Two key excerpts. Here is the first:

As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.

For years, I’ve used the term audience identification. Something about your story, most particularly involving your Protagonist, must resonate with a reader. What that boils down to is creating a sense of empathy on the part of the reader with at least one of your central characters. If you do that, you shrink the distance between the reader and the story universe you are creating. Indeed, the reader can begin to live vicariously through the experiences of the Protagonist, the degree of empathy so strong as to pull the reader into the story.

Here is the second excerpt:

In subsequent studies we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation. (This research was given a boost when, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, we developed ways to measure oxytocin release noninvasively at up to one thousand times per second.) We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention — a scarce resource in the brain — by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300.

It’s not enough to create empathy. Empathy does not necessarily translate into a compelling story. To do that, we need to craft a narrative that involves some sense of tension. You’ve heard the saying, “You can’t have good drama without conflict”? That is the same sentiment as what is at work here. There have to be problems to solve and obstacles to overcome in order for a narrative to create a sense of tension in a reader. Of course, the presence of this tension presupposes a resolution to it which in turn provides a sense of emotional satisfaction.

The intriguing thing here is that while we, as writers, are thinking about emotions and psychology, much of it apparently boils down to a chemical reaction in the brain.

So think engendering empathy. Work on creating tension. But also be aware that the brain loves good storytelling because it arouses emotions through the influence of a writer’s best friend: Oxytocin!

For more of the Harvard Business Review article, go here.

Next week in Part 2, we will consider the effect of different parts of a story and chemical reactions in the brain.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

For more Writing and the Creative Life articles, go here.

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