How Storytelling Affects The Brain

How Storytelling Affects The Brain

Scientists have estimated that humans have been telling stories from the moment we learned to speak tens of thousands of years ago. This has changed our brains on a biochemical level. Whether you agree with it or not, we are wired to think of the world and our lives in storytelling terms. Much like gravity, we simply can’t do anything about it.

In this article, we will examine together how stories can control our brains and how you can harness their power to use in your presentations and communication.

In 2009 writers Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn conducted a social experiment called “Significant Objects” to prove whether stories are really that irresistible to the human mind. The experiment was simple – they auctioned off random thrift-shop items on eBay, but instead of adding the usual item description, which merely states the objects’ characteristics and features, they asked over 200 professional writers to author short stories inspired by the items. The results were outstanding – the objects, purchased for $1.25 a piece on average, sold for nearly $8,000. This means that through the power of storytelling alone, they got a 6,300% Return on Investment!

But how is this possible? What lies beneath the magic of storytelling? Is it actual magic, or is there a scientific explanation as to why storytelling yields so much power over us? And how can we use stories in our presentations and communication?

Inside our brains, some different neurotransmitters and hormones are triggered when we’re exposed to stories. Four have an immense impact on how we feel and react: cortisol, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphin. When released, those hormones can make us feel trust, become more focused and thus engaged, experience stress, and so much more.

So to find out how storytelling affects our brain, we must first take a closer look at those hormones and neurotransmitters and what they actually do.


Or better known as the feel-good hormone.

Dopamine is released when we expect and receive pleasure. As a result, you can expect increased engagement and, from there – better retention of information in people whose brains are releasing this neurotransmitter.

So how can you make your audience’s brains release dopamine through a story? Well, stories are predisposed to dopamine release because they are unique. Especially personal ones. They are your stories and not someone else’s. This makes them something new for your audience. And when something is new, that makes it interesting for your brain. However, don’t forget that the stories you tell still need to be relevant to your audience and the topic.

On top of that, you need to present them well because if you sound monotone, for example, a story by itself won’t save you. So, as you go through the story and the action unfolds, your audience will experience the release of dopamine because they will constantly be looking for and expecting to hear what happens next. Bonus points if you have a cliffhanger and present it by adding a long pause before revealing what happens next. During your pause – you will see the audience extremely engaged and on the edge of their chairs because they are waiting. Expecting something interesting to happen. That’s what dopamine does, and people can’t stop it.


Or better known as the bonding hormone or the "seeking connection" hormone.

Oxytocin was first produced in animals millions of years ago because the female had to trust the male she is the chosen one, and there is no threat.

But how do you cause the release of oxytocin in your audience’s brains having in mind that this one is all about trust, connection, empathy, care, and love? Well, you want to make the character of your story relatable to your audience. Make them more human. Reveal aspects of the character’s nature – who they are, what they like or dislike, and what their fears are. Tell a story of struggles and hardships, and ensure you add enough details. Paint a picture with your words. The more you make the audience empathize with your character (maybe that’s you if it is a personal story), the more oxytocin is released and the stronger the bond becomes. And the stronger the bond, the more trust there will be. And trust is very, very important in presentations. Because if you lack trust, you will never be able to change your audience’s beliefs, values or behaviour.

Are you getting more curious about the topic of storytelling? Then you should definitely check out our online course – Storytelling in Presentations. Learn how to build your presentation’s story by applying storytelling principles and create an engaging talk that leads to action.


Or better known as the stress hormone.

When we are scared or faced with unexpected danger, cortisol is released, prompting our flight or fight reaction. But when used wisely, its role in storytelling is quite different as stress also increases your focus.

A compelling story will make our brains release cortisol every time the main character is put at risk or in danger on his path to reaching his goal. As one of the most prolific story researchers, Kendall Haven, who was twice now a speaker at our conference, says: “As goes tension, there goes attention!”. Write that down. So when telling a story, make sure you emphasize how risky something is and how much danger it brings for your story character. Raise the stakes. Create tension.

Oh, and by the way, if you want to release cortisol in your audience’s brain, just do the following: during one of your presentations on a super serious topic, scream! Scream out of nowhere. As loudly as you can. That will indeed release cortisol in your audience’s brains and maybe even activate their flight or fight response! Side note: don’t tell them we made you do that.


Better known as the happy hormone.

Humans experience the release of endorphins when they laugh or find something amusing. As a result, they feel more relaxed, less critical and more willing to engage and listen. So, if you want this from your audience, you may want to learn how to make something sound funny. We are not saying it’s easy to make someone laugh, but it’s worth trying. And if you are unsure about your skills, maybe you can even plan a rehearsal in front of a similar audience to see how they would react when you believe they should laugh.

So, now we can see that stories work not because they are some form of magic. It’s just science. Now the question is – the next time you have an important talk, what would be the story or stories that you would use to make your audience experience the release of dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol and endorphins?

But that’s not all from us on this amazing topic. If you want to dig deeper, we recommend you to learn from Mr. Kendall Haven. He’s a world-renowned master storyteller and expert in the science of story structure. He was speaking at our presentation skills conference Present to Succeed for two consecutive years and now you can rewatch his sessions by getting the Storytelling Track Recordings from Present to Succeed Conference 2021 and 2022!