Brain Pickings

The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated

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What cortisol and oxytocin have to do with a 19th-century German playwright.

From Future of Storytelling summit and neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, comes this short film on empathy, neurochemistry, and the dramatic arc, directed and edited by my friend Kirby Ferguson and animated by Henrique Barone.

Zak takes us inside his lab, where he studies how people respond to stories. What he found is that even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response my triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin, provided it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag 150 years ago.

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.

Complement with Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

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