Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc

The emotionally charged story recounted at the beginning of Dr. Paul Zak's film—of a terminally ill two-year-old named Ben and his father—offers a simple yet remarkable case study in how the human brain responds to effective storytelling.
    As part of his study, Dr. Zak, a founding pioneer in the emerging field of neuroeconomics, closely monitored the neural activity of hundreds of people who viewed Ben's story.
   What he discovered is that even the simplest narrative, if it is highly engaging and follows the classic dramatic arc outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag, can evoke powerful empathic responses associated with specific neurochemicals, namely cortisol and oxytocin. Those brain responses, in turn, can translate readily into concrete action—in the case of Dr. Zak's study subjects, generous donations to charity and even monetary gifts to fellow participants.
   By contrast, stories that fail to follow the dramatic arc of rising action/climax/denouement—no matter how outwardly happy or pleasant those stories may be—elicit little if any emotional or chemical response, and correspond to a similar absence of action. Dr. Zak's conclusions hold profound implications for the role of storytelling in a vast range of professional and public milieus.


1 comment:

Kathy Smart said...

When Dr Zak tells a 90 second story about how hard a father finds it to play with his son, because his son is happy and the father knows he is dying, Dr Zak says two primary emotions are elicited:
• distress
• empathy

The brain produces two chemicals as a result of the story:
• cortisol which focuses our intention on something important after we feel distress
• oxytocin, which is associated with care, connection and empathy
Those who produced the most cortisol and oxytocin were more likely to donate money generously to strangers.

Dr Zak inferred from this experiment that narrative changes behaviour. In fact, Dr Zak identified distress response as a measure of empathic response and was able to predict who would donate half their $20 earnings before they did so. The most active areas during the emotional story were:
• associated with theory of mind / understanding what others are doing
• areas rich in oxytocin receptors which make us feel empathy

Dr Zak says you need a dramatic arc to elicit emotions, because in the story where the father and son go to the zoo, nothing happens, people zone out and their emotions are not engaged. He quotes Gustav Freytag’s dramatic arc which requires:
• exposition
• rising action
• climax
• falling action
• denouemont
There is a weak link in his argument, however, because neither film has a strong storyline. The first is a vignette about a father’s ambivalent feelings about playing with his dying son, the second is a story about a father and son walking, not interacting with each other or with their surroundings.

The father’s difficulties are described by Dr Zak as the climax of his story: he plays with his son knowing the son will die soon. This is not the accepted use of the term ‘climax’. A sense of impending doom is not a climax of a story. Neither movie tells a story with a strong dramatic arc.

Universal story structure may well transport emotions into another person’s world, changing their brain chemistry, but this has not been demonstrated by Dr Zak.