The power of stories is a long-held maxim of the L&D community. And recent scientific work is proving that stories affect our attitudes and behaviors—and learning. 

Before understanding how storytelling works on the brain, it’s important to know how oxytocin works. Paul J. Zak, professor at Claremont Graduate University and president of Ofactor, Inc., explains that oxytocin is a neurochemical produced by the brain when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. According to Zak in his HBR blog post, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” oxytocin does this “by enhancing the sense of empathy, which is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.” 

Zak’s lab wondered if it could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. The lab then tested whether narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, the lab found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. More important, lab results revealed that the “amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others.” (Details of the lab experiments can be found in The Greater Good article, “How Stories Change the Brain.”) 

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But the lab also discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The narrative can do this by developing tension. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world. 

Clearly, these findings on the neurobiology of storytelling are not only interesting, but relevant to business and learning. The experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a trainer or facilitator is trying to make—and enable better recall of these points weeks later. In other words, effective storytelling can lead to a higher transfer of learning and changes in behavior and performance. And isn’t that exactly what L&D professionals are striving to accomplish?