This Is Your Brain On Plot. Any Questions?

Addiction is a strange bird. Much of the time it has a negative connotation: addiction to a drug or gambling.  But, in other instances, addiction is just an everyday part of our life; in fact, entire industries rely on us to be addicted every day, i.e. the coffee industry.

But when thinking of coffee, addiction is usually the last word to pop in our head.  When I think of coffee, I see a woman in her robe contently looking out of her kitchen window on a crisp fall morning with a steaming cup of joe. I’m not seeing an addict.  An addiction to caffeine through coffee is a mild addiction at best, but an addiction nonetheless.  For quite a long time, I drank 12 cups of coffee each day (I know, I know!).  I was absolutely positive I wasn’t addicted, so I decided to cut it out completely for a while and then get back on the caffeine train at a lower dose.  Needless to say I was miserable: I transformed into this achy, sleepy, drooly type of creature. My bedtime quickly went from midnight to around 8 p.m. It wasn’t pretty.  I’m back on the junk now, but I keep it at around four cups a day.

This made me wonder: what else am I addicted to? A quick audit of where I spend my time found that I (like many of you, I’m assuming) am addicted to plots. A plot can be as short and simple as a knock-knock joke or as long and complex as a Dostoyevsky novel. Somehow, these narratives have weaseled their way into almost every part of my life. I consume news stories while I brush my teeth, podcasts while I do the dishes, random T.V. shows while I fold the laundry, feature films on a night out, fiction novels for leisure, and of course, every other second of my life is devoted to Netflix. We now live in an era where binge-watching Netflix all weekend is practically socially acceptable. Take a minute to consider all of the media you consume: how much of it is plot or narrative driven?

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So what keeps us coming back to the well to serve this addiction to storytelling? For years we have known that storytelling is the oldest form of communication, but we never really knew why; that is until recently.  Dr. Paul J. Zak, director of the Center For Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has cracked the biological code for story addiction.  In an article based on experimental evidence published late last year, Dr. Paul J. Zak explains that two chemicals alter our brains when we engage a story: cortisol and oxytocin.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released when we are exposed to the tension of a story, it focuses our attention and draws us in to the narrative. Cortisol focuses our attention so we can learn something new; it’s helpful to remember what a character does and the outcome produced in case we find ourselves in a similar situation down the road . Oxytocin is a hormone  that is released when we experience feelings of empathy and connection; this hormone is responsible for the transportational experience you have when you are completely immersed in a story, it’s the reason you scream during horror flicks. The experiments also found that if a story lacks sufficient tension or room for empathy, the chemicals are produced less, and interest in the story wanes. This video explains the experiments that led Dr. Paul J. Zak to make these discoveries.

So what does all this mean? Well, for one, it explains why you may sit in your driveway listening to the last bit of that news story on the radio. It will also give you peace-of-mind the next weekend you spend glued to the couch binge-watching Netflix, because hey, it just means you have a healthy brain.

Interesting, right? Storytelling is more than interesting when you have a business to promote; it’s integral. At Serif, we understand the science behind storytelling and work diligently to pass this benefit on to our clients. The following is a story film we produced for Adornetto’s, an authentic Italian restaurant in Zanesville, Ohio. [WARNING: You’re gonna be pretty hungry after this.]

Every company has a story; are you telling yours effectively?

Give us a shout through this link or in the contact form below and we can upgrade your storytelling for maximum efficiency.

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Editor’s Note: For an extremely interesting hour delving deeper into the other responsibilities of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” check out this RadioLab episode. Also, here is a commercial from the campaign that influenced the title of this post – This is Your Brain on Drugs.

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