I’ve already answered the “why mugs?” question. Now it’s time to answer the “why stories?” one.
I’ve been working in the world of stories now for about five years, but it took me a while to catch on to the storytelling movement. Now I’m on on the train because I’ve learned why we all love stories so much. And it’s not because Hollywood has groomed us into story mongers. No, actually, it’s the other way around.
Our story-centric brains came before Hollywood. They’ve just found a way to take it to the bank. (Also, way to go, Pixar, for making us cry in four and a half minutes without even using words.)
The Science of Storytelling
About two years after I began working with Shattered Media, Inc., where we tell the stories of God at work, I interviewed “Science Mike” McHargue and told his story for the magazine. It’s an incredible story of how he went from the quintessential church kid, to complete atheist, and then back to Jesus in an awesome way. (Read his story here.)
A little background on Mike: He’s super smart. He hosts a podcast called “Ask Science Mike” where he answers all sorts of science-y questions with words I can’t pronounce. In my research before I spoke with Mike, I found a podcast episode where he explained the science of storytelling, and I was completely hooked. He even spoke to our team of storytellers, motivating us to continue in storytelling because of this amazing research.
Okay, so you want to know what I got so excited about, right? Here it is: the Orbito-frontal cortex and the blood hormone, Oxytocin. I know, thrilling. But hang with me:
The Orbito-frontal Cortex is the part of your brain responsible for planning for the immediate future. It’s located in front, right behind your eyes, and it makes plans for what you’re going to do next: After I finishing typing this sentence I will take a drink of coffee. That kind of stuff. This is part of your consciousness (which is basically your brain telling itself its own story). And the play-by-play planning never stops. Except.
Except when it is engaged in a story.
This is why you’re very rarely deterred from a movie by your own hunger pangs. Or how you’ve lost all track of time while reading a novel. Your brain shuts off (everything but the important tasks, like breathing and blood-pumping) when you’re engaged in someone else’s story. And it’s why you keep reading the stories of my coffee mugs. (That is, if you’re reading them. Don’t tell me if you’re not.)
Our brains are wired for stories.
But that’s not all.
Oxytocin is a blood hormone also known as the “cuddle hormone” because it’s part of physical intimacy. When you’re physically close to someone else, oxytocin is the hormone that bonds you to that person, whether it’s your newborn baby or your best friend or your spouse. Oxytocin is a bonding agent. And guess what? It’s involved in storytelling, too.
Higher levels of oxytocin are found in the blood when a person is engaged in a story, creating a bond between the storyteller and the story listener. And they don’t have to be physically close to each other. Stories bond humans together in ways that facts and figures cannot.
It’s why you cry when your favorite character dies. You feel like you know them personally because you’ve been engaged in their story and you have created a bond with that character. It’s why movies reveal the backstory of the villain, because we have a certain compassion for them once we’ve heard why they’re so evil. It’s why you feel a hole when your favorite tv show ends; there’s a whole group of friends you don’t get to see anymore. You know they’re fictional and they’re not really your friends, but your brain and heart have been bonded to them through story.
These are just a couple of the amazing biophysical elements of storytelling that captivated me. And I have Science Mike to thank for the introduction into the science of storytelling. There’s lots more research on the science of storytelling. Check out this YouTube video (and poke around at some of the other storytelling TED Talks).
Scientifically speaking, THAT’S why I—and you—love stories so much.
So Why Stories?
Our brains are wired for stories. Stories have the ability to immediately engage both our logic and our emotions. We can’t help it. It’s part of my brain and yours, and our hearts and ears and minds will always perk up when we hear stories. They have the power to break down barriers (that’s the mission of Shattered Media, Inc.) and build community and bring humans together for good.
I’ve fallen in love with stories and storytelling, and it’s all my brain’s fault. Turns out the head and the heart aren’t so disconnected, after all.
So, why stories? Because I love them. You love them. We all love them. And there’s nothing we can do about it short of a lobotomy. And that seems a bit extreme.