I also like how Zak ties the way the brain is affected by stories to evolution. He mentions how some stories are better at eliciting a desire to donate money to charities. Economics also comes in with "attention is a scarce resource." If you are telling a story, you better make it emotional or else people will not want to focus on it because that is costly. As economist Robert Frank has said, emotions are costly to fake so they make a more believable kind of information.
"A recent analysis identifies this “hero’s journey” story as the foundation for more than half of the movies that come out of Hollywood, and countless books of fiction and nonfiction. And, if you take a look, this structure is in the majority of the most-watched TED talks.
Why are we so attracted to stories? My lab has spent the last several years seeking to understand why stories can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviors, and even inspire us—and how stories change our brains, often for the better. Here’s what we’ve learned."
"The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts."
"We discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world.
Any Hollywood writer will tell you that attention is a scarce resource. Movies, TV shows, and books always include “hooks” that make you turn the page, stay on the channel through the commercial, or keep you in a theater seat.
Scientists liken attention to a spotlight. We are only able to shine it on a narrow area. If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders.
In fact, using one’s attentional spotlight is metabolically costly so we use it sparingly. This is why you can drive on the freeway and talk on the phone or listen to music at the same time. Your attentional spotlight is dim so you can absorb multiple informational streams. You can do this until the car in front of you jams on its brakes and your attentional spotlight illuminates fully to help you avoid an accident.
From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story"
"In the brain, maintaining attention produces signs of arousal: the heart and breathing speed up, stress hormones are released, and our focus is high.
Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with story’s characters. Narratologists call this “transportation,” and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train.
Transportation is an amazing neural feat. We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit James Bond must be feeling. And we begin to feel those emotions, too.
Stories bring brains together
Emotional simulation is the foundation for empathy and is particularly powerful for social creatures like humans because it allows us to rapidly forecast if people around us are angry or kind, dangerous or safe, friend or foe.
Such a neural mechanism keeps us safe but also allows us to rapidly form relationships with a wider set of members of our species than any other animal does. The ability to quickly form relationships allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space. By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.
We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate. I have dubbed oxytocin the “moral molecule,” and others call it the love hormone. What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us. In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage to help others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help."
"But it turns out that not all stories keep our attention and not all stories transport us into the characters’ worlds."
"This evidence supports the view of some narrative theorists that there is a universal story structure. These scholars claim every engaging story has this structure, called the dramatic arc. It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself."
"The form in which a narrative is told also seems to matter. The narrative theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in the 1960s that “the medium is the message,” and we’ve found this is true neurologically."