“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted.
I am intrigued by stories, I love hearing them, crafting them and telling them. There is an old family story about me. Let me share it with you. I was my mother’s eighth child (yep) and my birth was predictably speedy, delivered by an obstetrician named Dr Love ( my mother felt this was a very powerful omen). The story goes that I emerged clasping the umbilical cord, according to family lore I was actually searching for the microphone on the end of it. This amusing little story gave me the confidence to believe, even as a small child, that I was born to speak up. I have found the microphone ever since.
Why are stories so powerful ?
“We are all basically dreamers and storytellers. In the creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story.”
Recently I read The Story Telling Animal by educator and science writer Jonathan Gottschall. In this book he traces the roots, both evolutionary and sociocultural, of the transfixing grip storytelling has on our hearts and minds, individually and collectively. What emerges is a kind of “unified theory of storytelling,” revealing not only our gift for manufacturing truthiness in the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but also the remarkable capacity of stories — the right kinds of them — to change our shared experience for the better.
If you need people to respond to your call to action, give money to a worthy charity, take your social policy seriously then you need to be able to tell a story. Facts just don’t cut it. Sure they are important but no-one is going to be moved to action by the facts of the case. After all, Martin Luther-King didn’t say “I have a plan or I have a Gant chart”. No matter how high the figures, it’s the story that changes the way the brain works. Let me share a beautiful short film with you. This will take up a whole 6 minutes of your day and I promise it will be worth it.
At last year’s Future of StoryTelling summit in New York, Zak showed a short film called “Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc” – which opened up a fascinating talk about how the human mind responds to effective storytelling.
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In this beautiful little film about Ben and his father the researchers found that two primary emotions were elicited by those who watched it : distress and empathy. They took blood before and after the participants had watched the film and they found that the brain produced two interesting chemicals; cortisol – which focuses our attention on something important. The more distress you feel the more cortisol you release. The other chemical was oxytocin; associated with care, connection and empathy. The more oxytocin you release the more empathic you felt.
The researchers then gave participants opportunities to donate money to a stranger and to a charity. Those participants who produced high levels of cortisol and oxytocin were more generous in their donations. The behaviour of those listening to the story was altered by a change in brain chemistry.
The researchers were able to predict with 80% accuracy who would donate money to charity. They went on to compare their finding using a control video of a story where there was very little cause to elicit emotion or empathy. I’m not going to give the whole story away, I’ll leave you to watch the short animated film.
For stories to leave us uplifted or motivated to connect with others they need a particular structure. Gustav Freytag referred to this as the Dramatic Arc. A story is composed of five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. In an earlier post What’s Your Story I wrote about the work of Marshall Ganz. The Dramatic Arc can easily be over-layed on the work of Ganz.
“Stories not only teach us how to act – they inspire us to act. Stories communicate values, through the language of the heart, our emotions. And it is what we feel – our hopes, our cares, our obligations – not simply what we know that can inspire us with the courage.”
If stories interest you, the way they interest me, leave a comment and let me know. Meanwhile you can visit //cowbird.com – the most beautiful online place to tell stories.
Don’t miss the Power of Story workshop in Melbourne 4th September 2015 2pm – 5pm Check it out here