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SOUNDS ODD #23 by Elizabeth Holmes
Fun Facts on the Science of Sound
This Is Your Brain On Stories ...
March 31, 2014

Don’t you love it when you get a great script?   

Compelling stories make our jobs as narrators easier.

Why? Because we engage with them emotionally. We’re social animals, and our brains have adapted over millennia to find ways to connect with each other. 

Stories with the correct structure, in the correct sequence, allow us to do that in a vivid way.  


This is not new information. One hundred and fifty years ago, a German novelist and playwright named Gustav Freytag analyzed Western civilization’s most enduring literature to discover his (now famous) theory of the dramatic arc. To be truly successful, it seems, memorable stories must include the following elements in the following order:  
1) Introduce important background information
2) Develop a series of related incidents that build greater interest
3) Create a turning point (a climax)
4) Then, engage in a struggle toward …
5)  … Resolution  

What IS new information is the science behind how stories like this change our brains.   


Working under a grant provided by DARPA (more on this below), Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Berkeley, CA, devised a series of experiments to find out why some stories motivate us to act, and why some leave us cold.  

Zak studied subjects before and after they watched two short videos. In both videos, the subject was a father and his two year-old son. Both stories were true.

The first showed the little boy playing, while the father described his efforts to stay present and happy with his son during the precious time that remained before the boy succumbed to a terminal cancer diagnosis.  

The second video featured the same father and son on a trip to the zoo, but this time the story did not include the looming cancer threat.  


Viewer subjects were tested in several ways. 

They gave blood samples before and after they watched the videos. While they watched, their heart rates, skin conduction and respiration were monitored. And after watching both videos, subjects were given the opportunity to donate part (or all) of the $20 they received as compensation to a charity that supported children’s cancer research.  

Tests revealed that in most subjects, the first video elicited distress, then empathy.  Focusing on distress caused subjects to produce cortisol, a common marker for stress. 

Focusing on empathy resulted in oxytocin, a hormone associated with care, connection and the reduction of anxiety. 

The second video produced a more neutral response.


Not surprisingly, after watching the first video, a significant majority of subjects were moved to contribute half of their fee to charity. The second video did not inspire generosity. 

And here’s the interesting part – the link between cortisol and oxytocin levels and donations to charity was so high, that researchers were able to predict with 80% accuracy who would give and who would not. 

Or should I say, the creepy part?  


I’m fascinated by the fact that at least part of this research was funded by DARPA – Defense Advance Research Projects Agency

DARPA is an agency of the US Department of Defense (DOD). It was founded during the Eisenhower administration, in the early years of the space race.  DARPA’s 2005 public release states that:  
DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for our enemies. 
So now, it appears, effective storytelling, and its related chemistry, is of interest to the Department of Defense! (Wanna make a bet some reverse-engineering is in the works – oxytocin first, story after? Just call me paranoid.)  

Something to think about the next time you transform that otherwise-neutral script into a work of art. You may be changing your listener’s brain chemistry!    

For more on Paul Zak’s work, see  How Stories Change the Brain,” Greater Good, The Science of a Meaningful Life.


Elizabeth Holmes is a writer, voice actor, and staff editor at VoiceOverXtra, based in Northern California. She is also editor of VoiceOverXtra's book division, including Voice Over Legal, by voice actor / attorney Robert Sciglimpaglia.


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Comments (2)
4/3/2014 at 11:58 AM
Great article! I had no idea.
3/30/2014 at 6:57 PM
Wow. I had no idea the way we could be easily manipulated was provable by testing our blood! Creepy indeed!
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