Your brain on release. geralt/19445@Pixabay.com
I miss reading stories out loud.
It was one of those magical things that my spouse and I did every night with our children when they were little. Some books I loved more than others. Goodnight Gorilla, anything by Mercer Meyer, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, and the whole Series of Unfortunate Events. I even had a chance to read aloud the chapter book, Bud, Not Buddy, to my kid’s third-grade class. And – I knew it was coming – there was one part where my voice would catch every time because my heart was breaking for Bud.
Little did I know that these stories were stimulating two specific emotions: distress and empathy.
Paul Zak is a leader in the relatively new field of neuroeconomics. Neuroeconomics is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to explain:
- how humans make decisions,
- how they have the ability to process various alternatives, and
- how they then decide what they are going to do.
In his short film, “The Future of Storytelling,” Zak explains how a story of a father playing with his son who is dying of cancer made people feel both distress and empathy. He discovered that, as the feelings of distress and empathy were elicited, two chemicals were released in the brain: cortisol and oxytocin.
The chemical cortisol focuses your attention – and the more distress you feel, the more cortisol is released.
On the other hand, oxytocin releases when there is a sense of care, connection, and empathy.
Here’s the mind-blowing part. In one of his studies, Zak gave money to participants. Once one group watched the movie about the dying boy and his father and the cortisol (distress) and oxytocin (empathy) were generated, people were willing to donate money generously.
When the control group watched a video of the father and son on a trip to the zoo without the context of the cancer diagnosis – the story element – guess how much money was donated? Nada, nothing – because there was no emotional connection.
As if you need to be reminded: The Gospels are full of stories of distress and empathy. The woman at the well. The feeding of the 5,000. Mary and Martha. Zacchaeus. The crucifixion and resurrection. You can name a dozen others.
The Gospel stories are about why Jesus came – the distressing state of humanity – and about what Jesus brings us, the love of God. New scientific understandings of storytelling and the function of chemicals in our bodies reveal the “how” of why these stories are so powerful and transforming for us.
As you seek to share the good news of the Gospel, or the transformative work of your organization, you need to ask yourself:
How are you doing at your storytelling? Here are two quick reminders:
1. There can be no redemption without distress. Too often, we worry about making people sad. Emotion is not a bad thing. Telling that part of the story makes us sit up and take notice.
2. Let people feel empathy. Once again, tears of compassion are not bad. If you think about some of those Gospel stories and really let them sink in, you too will find yourself going straight for the Kleenex.
There are so few places that storytelling is done and done well. Church should be one of the places that bucks that trend. This week, go forth and be a part of releasing some cortisol and oxytocin. You’ll be doing your people – and yourself – a great favor. Then, go treat yourself and read your favorite children’s book.