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Biology, Learning, Psychology, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Storytelling and your brain

It has been a few weeks since I posted. My plan is to get back to once a week. Hopefully this is the start of that.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I participated in a webinar on disruptive storytelling. One of the scientists that they referred to in this webinar was Paul J. Zak. Zak studies oxytocin, which is a hormone that influences your body and your brain. In your body it is involved in childbirth and breastfeeding; in your brain, it is involved in social bonding. Zak describes it as a “key ‘it’s safe to approach others’ signal. We produce it when we feel trusted, or someone is kind to us. It encourages us to cooperate with other people by enhancing our empathy.

Based on this knowledge Zak’s lab wanted to find out if a story could encourage people to cooperate. To do this, they showed people movies and measured their levels of oxytocin. And it turns out, that people do release oxytocin in response to watching a story, and the amount of oxytocin released was directly related to an individual’s willingness to help others.

For a story to do this it needs to keep your attention, typically this is done by creating tension. If this is done successfully, viewers will feel empathy for the characters. This has the effect that after the story is done, the viewers will mimic the behaviour of the characters they identified with. This might explain why I like to work out while watching sports.

Zak applies this research to the world of business where he has examined the effect of character-driven stories with emotional content on an audiences perception and memory of a speaker; the stories help people remember the key points weeks later. This relates to my own experience teaching. It always amazes me how often my students relate key concepts back to me through the stories that I use to relay them; while they often struggle to remember concepts that we simply cover in class.

This ultimately makes me wonder about how we communicate and teach science and environmental sustainability. The main premise I had in my thesis was that the stories we were telling in climate change education were too distant and therefore did not trigger the empathy that we need to result in behaviour change. I used photography, where my participants took photographs of things they related to in their own lives and environments to try to change the narrative about climate change. It isn’t about someone else, living somewhere else, it is about the here and the now. What I found was that my participants were inspired to question many of their everyday assumptions and experiences in ways that may trigger more sustainable behaviours. Did this relate to oxytocin production? I have no idea but after reading Zak’s research I do wonder.

In an attempt to be objective, and just report on the facts, scientists often don’t tell the stories of their research. And then teachers generally continue this approach as we teach science. But perhaps we need more stories in our science. I think we have evidence for this in the anti-science movements like the anti-vax movement. They tell stories of families who have had their lives ripped apart, supposedly by a vaccine. Where are the stories of the families who haven’t been ripped apart because they were vaccinated? Ah, there in lies the rub, no one will buy that I grew up in a happy and healthy home because my parents had the wisdom to vaccinate me. It was just one of many possible contributing factors.

I think we need to do a better job of telling stories with our real science. Then we need to do the science so that we know what the effect of those stories have on how we remember, relate to, and understand the science.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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