Brain Chemicals and the Universal Story


Storytelling gurus often say that our human brains are “hard-wired” to receive information coming through established cognitive channels in formats that we all recognize as stories.

This can’t be literally true as we don’t have wiring in our heads. But perhaps we are “soft-wired” through the release patterns of certain brain chemicals that condition our favorable response to information presented as compelling stories.

If our response to story is indeed guided by neurology, how does it work? Do certain anxiety-creating aspects of a narrative (the challenges contained in earlier part of the dramatic arc) trigger the release of cortisol, a focus-the-mind chemical? And do resolutions, denouements or happy endings trigger the release of oxytocins, which create a sense of fulfillment, empathy and completeness?

The interplay between neurology and cognitive aspects of storytelling-as-science is nowhere better expressed than by researcher Paul  Zak.

You can watch a terrific  and profound video on this subject by Paul Zak by clicking here.

The only caveat to the storytelling-as-science movement is that the heavy mob is  already on the case. Some years ago attended an event with Steve Denning (a former World Banker who has carved a substantial personal story arc through the storytelling business.) Alongside him was a researcher who had received funding from the  National Security Agency in the United States  (this was just after 9/11) to undertake mass online scoping of stories in Islamic cultures, to try and predict future terrorist events.

And now we find that another branch of the US military/security apparatus (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is also funding research work on storytelling.

Yes, storytelling deserves adequate  public-sector funding to widen our understanding of the deep cognitive pathways that influence our decisions — and in turn determine our free will and our  social cohesion. But I’m more than a little nervous that the US military seems to be getting there first in a scenario that’s redolent of George Orwell’s 1984. I’d rather it was NSF than NSA unraveling the chemical secrets of story.

In the US, the NRA and the Second Amendment crowd who insist on the public’s right to bear arms in the event that the people need to overthrow a tyrannical government, might consider a fresh amendment upholding the American people’s “right to bear stories” in the event that the federal government’s experimentation with stories ushers in a darker age of control propaganda.

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