A powerful narrative in transformation (redux)
Education and 21st Century Presentation

Neurochemistry, empathy & the power of story

Dr. Paul Zak is a key contributor in the emerging field of neuroeconomics. He has many interesting talks online including this one delivered at TED in 2011 concerning the issue of morality and the function of the neurochemical oxytocin. But the video I'd like to highlight today concerns the role of neurochemistry and story. Have you ever wondered what is happening to you at the neurochemical level when a story gets your full attention, brings you in, and then causes you to care deeply about its contents? If so, this video below should be of interest.

The video above can be found on the wonderful Future of Storytelling website.

How did you feel when you watched the story of a boy and his father? To be honest, it caught me off guard. I felt such a level of distress that I nearly stopped the video. (Perhaps this is because I have a little baby boy about the same age. There is evidence that a father's brain changes when he begins to raise his children. I believe it.) Dr. Zak's research suggests that during a story like the one used in the video, most viewers produce powerful empathic responses, responses which are associated with the neurochemicals cortisol and oxytocin. A few moments in to the video, when I heard of the boy's fate, I felt as if I were becoming physically ill. Dr. Zak says this is in part a reaction to the distress hormone cortisol. This distress hormone is associated with attention—the more distress one feels the greater the focus in this case. As I kept watching, like most people who watched this, I felt great concern (or feelings of sadness, sympathy, compassion, etc.). These feelings are related to oxytocin, a hormone associated with care, connection, and empathy. The more oxytocin released, the more empathetic people felt toward Ben and his father.

Dr. Zak's research goes on to suggest that we can use these brain responses to elicit concrete actions, such as getting people to make more generous donations. For example, in one of his studies, Dr. Zak determined that the amount of oxytocin released could predict how much money people shared in an experimental setting. One suggestion is that the type of narrative used in the story of the boy and his father—a form of Freytag's story pyramid—changed the neurochemistry of brain (which changed behavior).

I do not mean to make too much of this, but the early research in this field seems to support what we already know through experience, which is that a story is ineffectual if it does not make people care. A story must get our attention and make us care. Period. That is not all there is to it, of course, but these two elements are crucial and yet not easy to achieve.


Edwin Rutsch

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion, The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

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