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Your Brain On Stories

By Melissa Brown, MD


Once upon a time . . .   You know a story is coming when you hear or read those words. You can easily identify a story, even when it doesn’t start with ‘once upon a time.’ That’s because your brain is wired to pay attention to stories. These stories take you on an adventure inside your head. Stories have served many purposes over the years. A story can be a means to entertain, educate, preserve history, or illustrate a moral lesson. It’s through storytelling that you connect with others via the emotional impact of your story.
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Your Brain On Stories

Did you know that a whole cocktail of brain chemicals is released when you listen to or read a story? As different parts of your brain become activated throughout the storytelling arc, different neurochemicals are released. Dopamine. Oxytocin. Cortisol. Endorphins. Adrenaline.
These chemicals flood your brain as well as your entire body. This, then, is what happens to your brain on stories.
David JP Philips, ‘Mr. Death by Powerpoint,’ explains there are actually 2 different types of neurochemical cocktails you can reliably induce in others through your marketing. He calls these two polar opposites, the Angels’ Cocktail, and the Devil’s Cocktail.

The Angels’ Cocktail

The Angels’ Cocktail includes 3 neurotransmitters; dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. With a name like an angel, you would assume this cocktail is a desirable one to serve up to your audience. And you would be correct.

Dopamine

The neurotransmitter, dopamine, helps increase your focus, motivation, and memory. The best dopamine-creating stories draw your listeners in and create suspense. They include an element of cliff-hanging so the audience is waiting and anticipating what happens next. All storytelling, by definition, increases dopamine. That means even if there are no cliff-hangers, a well-constructed story will increase dopamine in the listener.

Oxytocin

The love hormone, oxytocin, is the second ingredient in an Angels’ Cocktail. This is the hormone responsible for feelings of generosity, trust, and bonding. It’s the same hormone released by breastfeeding mothers. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for sealing a mother’s connection with their infant. Telling human-experience stories helps to create empathy–the ability to feel and share the feelings of the characters in your story. This increases connection with the story-teller. It makes the story-teller more relatable, more human.

Endorphins

The third ingredient in the Angels’ Cocktail is endorphins. Stories that make you laugh boost endorphins in your brain and your bloodstream. Endorphins are nature’s pain-relievers. Natural feel-good chemicals. They’re responsible for making you feel more relaxed, more focused, and more creative.

Remember the term ‘runner’s high?’ Exercise is another activity that releases endorphins and makes you feel good, much like a humorous story.

The Devil’s Cocktail

The opposite of the Angels’ Cocktail is the Devil’s Cocktail. This cocktail includes cortisol and adrenaline. They’re also known as stress hormones. Very high levels of these hormones result in irritability, impaired memory, poor decision-making, intolerance/judgment, and less creativity.

Functional Storytelling

You can control the effect of your stories now. This is the idea behind what’s becoming known as functional storytelling. Do you want to serve an angels’ cocktail or the devil’s cocktail? Choosing what type of story to tell to which audience can help you get better results. To get the most from this concept of functional storytelling, practice the following three techniques:

  1. Anyone can be a great story-teller. Believe in yourself as a story-teller.
  2. You have amazing stories happening to you and around you every day of your life. Capture those stories by writing them down. You can get started with any blank journal or notebook. The idea is to get down a story while you’re thinking about it.
  3. Organize your stories. This makes it easier to choose a particular story to create laughter (to produce endorphins), empathy (to create a connection), or intensity (producing dopamine). Index your stories so you can easily select which type of story you need. Some tools that would help you do this include Trello, Notion, and Evernote although there are many more.

In your marketing, content creation, speech writing, and conversation, you can now choose the best story so you can have more control over the hormones that are released.

Here’s the Ted Talk with David JP Philips teaching these concepts. Pay attention to the stories he tells and how he tells them. He’s obviously a master. Let me know in the comments below how you think this information may be able to help you as an online content creator.

About the author

Dr. Melissa Brown's career journey has always had an element of teaching. After retirement from clinical pediatric practice, Dr. Brown has taught and mentored as a healthy lifestyle coach, author, and speaker. She currently teaches solopreneurs and coaches how to stop being the world's best-kept secret. Her mission is to help you: Create great content. Impact people. Change the world.

    • Thank you for your comment, Patricia. Oh, we all have so many stories and even if something doesn’t seem like a ‘story’, there are so many ways to spin events and happenings that they turn into a story!! If you journal, look back through your journal–it’s full of stories!

    • Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting, Victoria!! You’re a masterful story-teller on your website–I definitely feel a connection to you after visiting and reading through many of your posts! 😍

  • Love this post and what David says about storytelling. How might I use this in my marketing and content creation… Write more stories… engage people in the story and less marketing tech. There are some elements that I need to think about and tool around within my brain. The power of the story is key. It engages the emotion and builds relationships. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Thank you for your comment, Katrina! I agree that the concept of pairing up a particular story to tell with what neurochemicals you want to induce in your audience is mind-blowing. It takes a while to understand the magnitude of power there and should only to be used for the greater good–only for creating win-win’s.

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