The Science of Storytelling, and How It Benefits Us

22 Feb, 2020

by Obinna Morton

Honestly, I’m trying now to unearth the parts of myself that through time have calcified. I think I’ve had a lot of tough experiences that have stunted me some. So I find it hard to open up.

But I know that it will be my freedom. It is what really brings life to anything. A Medium avatar. A person. A business.

And as I currently watch someone who is a motivational speaker who motivates me because I understand her words in the context of her story (and some of my story too), I know that it is a powerful tool to bring words to life.

So I’m working on this. And working to find this in the words I write and even something like an About page for Turns of Phrase, the name of my copywriting business.

The speaker’s name is Lisa Nichols. And I admire her rise from public assistance to taking her company public–one of the first African American women to own a company like this.

It’s so embarrassing to say this is something I experienced growing up, too.

“I have to be my own rescue. No one’s going to rescue me.”

Lisa Nichols

I like this quote.

Tangent aside, there is something empowering in seeing a person who is so willing to share their story. The good and the bad. It inspires me. More than a person’s accomplishments alone.

In fact, I think that a person’s life experiences or story are like the ink that help draw a picture and give it context and dimension.

So as I work toward this level of vulnerability, and awkward comfort in accepting the chapters of my ongoing choose-your-adventure life, I want to look at storytelling. And it’s power to hook a soul like a fish on a line.

Except in a much more life-affirming way. (I hope this metaphor, well, simile actually, works…).

Here is why storytelling is such a powerful thing. Empowering for us all, really.

If you’re still with me, were going to look at the science of storytelling and some of its benefits.

Now, let’s begin. Are you ready? Great. Let’s go.

The Science Behind Storytelling

It’s really strange to know that we actually react to hearing a story. Like chemistry.

You + story = something special ✴

Storytelling is more than a buzzword. It‘s an elixir of truth.

According to psychologist Lani Peterson, Psy.D in an article published in the Harvard Business Review (“The Science Behind the Art of Storytelling”), science shows us that when we are told a story, the following things happen:

1. The story becomes us.

The parts the brain that process language are activated, yes. But more amazing is that the parts of our mind that let us experience the story like it’s our own are activated too.

So if someone like Lisa Nichols, for example, told her son that, “Mom will never be this broke again,” we mimic ourselves saying the same thing. We become Lisa’s story, too.

This is based on findings Peterson cited from researchers in Spain outlined in the New York Times article “Your Brain On Fiction.”

Now onto scientific point #2, for what happens to our minds with storytelling.

2. Our brains release chemicals when we hear a story, which helps us to fuse ourselves more to it.

Why am I thinking of the character Venom from Spiderman? I mean, the image works. A fusion of space gook to human. A fusion of story to self. Except much less villainous.

Again, the story becomes us. Our brains release dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin.

Cortisol helps to build memory and let an idea stick. Dopamine regulates emotion, keeping us engaged. And oxytocin, according to Peterson’s article, helps to build empathy.

So we should tell stories rich in detail that appeal to our senses. Imagery. Metaphor.

Now that we know that there is science to support what happens to our minds when it hears a story, let’s now move onto the good of story. How it can benefit you and me.

Three Benefits of Storytelling

Let’s now check out three ways story can benefit us, particularly when we hear one.

This is our brains on story.

1. We can better understand our own truths as we look at the experiences of others.

I mentioned earlier that a story lets us live vicariously through the experience of another person.

Well as a result, there is a better chance that the message will land on target because of this self-to-story fusion, according to Peterson in “The Science Behind the Art of Storytelling.”

2. We develop empathy.

A story lets us develop an understanding of the person standing before us, or idea at hand. We have context to draw conclusions. We also gain dimension and definition to an idea or person.

In one study, medical students improved their opinions of dementia patients after doing storytelling exercises. These exercises helped the students to sympathize with the patients.

3. A story can stir a person to action.

According to research from neuroeconomist Paul Zak, people with higher levels of oxytocin are more willing to give money. A neuroeconomist sounds like what you might think even though the word, to me, seemed a bit intimidating.

Neuroeconomists study how neuroscience and psychology impact our economic decisions. So it makes sense looking at the root word and prefix. Like a word on the SAT.

In any case, Zak’s study showed an “emotionally charged” story to participants, which encouraged empathy. As a result, the story triggered oxytocin, which promotes connection and empathy.

The study concluded that with more oxytocin, a person was more likely to give money freely to a person they didn’t know.

So the more connected a person feels, the more empathetic they are to your words or story. And the more likely they are to buy. Cool.

This could be a lesson for advertising, or even a small business owner.

So what these three points show us is that storytelling is a powerful tool to let others feel our experiences. It helps build empathy. And it can inspire a purchase more easily.

Now let’s go ahead and close this out.

In short, story is a powerful tool for connection. Lisa Nichols isn’t the only person whose path inspires me because of her story. I connect to others for this reason, too.

And businesses whose story is a part of the fabric of who they are. Say, a computer company that started out in a garage. Or social media pioneer that started out in a dorm room.

I almost don’t think we should try to strategically place stories to get people to respond. We should simply stay open to telling our stories when the moment arises. And be unafraid to own the good, as well as the bad.

Show your face, and allow your stories to humanize you and your ideas.

That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for reading.

Obinna Morton

Notes from the Honeypot editors

We were intrigued by Obinna’s straightforward approach to storytelling and wanted to share her views with Smartlike blog readers. even when discussing science, she manages to introduce only the important stuff.

In addition to running her own Medium and business at, Obinna is part of the Book Mechanic: the writer’s source for creating books that work and selling those books once they’re written. Go there for more stories like Obinna’s.

Obinna Morton

Obinna Morton is a storyteller and (copy)writer. Her small business helps others tell their stories, making even the most boring and mundane suddenly interesting and engaging.