Part 4 of a 5-Part Thriller.
The dramatic narrative arc and its emotional impact is not a recent discovery. It was discovered when primitive man became modern man hundreds of thousands of years ago. The need to pay Attention too. When in a group photo we point to the storyteller, we don’t do it because of the words coming out of his mouth. It’s the one everybody is looking at.
The story that involves us emotionally and the ability of the storyteller, a film director, for example, to make us pay attention, moves us to action. We have a physical reaction. We generate ACTH and oxytocin. That’s the biological definition of a good movie, a good story, no matter the subject.
Why are there so many dreadful movies?
Searching for the answer, Paul began another series of experiments. He called it “the neuroscience of cinema”.
A technological barrier
Paul needed to measure attention and oxytocin levels quickly, second by second. Taking before-and-after blood samples wouldn’t work.
The technology that gave rise to the Internet came from the US Department of Defense (DOD) research and development. DOD also provided the money for Paul to get the technological help he needed. As a matter of potential war situations and troop maintenance, the DOD wanted to know what’s a persuasive narrative and was looking for help with the question. Provide a rifle, ammunition, uniform, and a persuasive story to a person and you have a soldier, a weapon of war.
Attention is easy to measure through the heartbeat or sweat. But what about oxytocin?. Human nature provided the solution. Although it wasn’t possible to measure directly with the needed speed, its effect could be measured in dense neural regions with oxytocin receptors. Like the vagus nerve that goes from the brain to the intestines. With some algorithmic manipulation of the voltage levels, Paul’s technicians could measure vagus nerve activity using an electrocardiogram (ECG). This would be the technique for rapid measurement of oxytocin level in a person.
But, would these measurements predict behavior?
Paul used his experience with the story of Ben and his father as a reliable stimulus in the release of oxytocin. He measured cardiac activity using an ECG and sweating using an electrodermal sensor on the fingers. The most exciting thing was that both effects (changes in attention and oxytocin) could be measured up to a thousand times per second with wireless technology.
But it wasn’t simple to isolate the effects of a story from everything the brain does to keep us alive. It was necessary to extract a specific neurological signal, the result of an external stimulus, from the constant noise of all other neuronal activities. The problem and its solution were transformed from capturing biological signals to a “big data” issue. The challenge thus became one of extracting information from an endless source of data. Each person in the study generated one terabyte per hour of neurological data. From there it was necessary to extract the information of a story’s neurological effect. It’s worth saying that once the technical barrier was overcome, the results were very interesting.
The effect of a story in the body is captured in real time
The brain didn’t work like the hypothetical structure of a dramatic tale known as the Freytag pyramid in which ascending action leads to a climax, and then action falls as the story’s conflict is resolved. Even in the hundred-second Ben’s video, attention grows and wanes. The brain was paying attention to the story or the environment, refocusing on the story as the tension increased. However, the maximum attention occurred at the climax, when Ben’s father reveals that Ben is dying. That’s an emotional explosion to which people pay attention.
The oxytocin response was behind the peak of attention when the story began. After about thirty seconds, the activity of the vagus nerve (used to measure the level of oxytocin) began to increase as viewers began to feel empathy for Ben and his father. Attention to the story provided a reason why viewers should care about the characters.
Not only Paul and his team were able to track what the brain was doing millisecond per millisecond during a story, but they used the neurological information to build a predictive model of donations to a charity against childhood cancer: a quantitative measure (not subjective) of the power of the story. The statistical model that was constructed predicted whether a participant would donate money with 82 percent accuracy. That is, by measuring in real-time how a person’s peripheral nervous system responded as she watched a story in audio-video format, Paul’s model predicted — 8 out of 10 times — what the person would do when a donation was requested after the story ends.
Participants who for some reason lost interest in the story or didn’t have an emotional connection with Ben and his father (taken from real-time neurological information, not from a survey) almost never donated money to the charity. But there was still a mystery: why donate money?. That money wouldn’t save Ben or offer relief to his father. It seems that once we pay attention and engage emotionally, our brains imitate and reflect the behaviors that the characters in the story are doing or could do. As social creatures, we are predisposed to engage with others, and good stories, effective stories, stories with a dramatic arc, make us imagine how to help others. Presented with an opportunity aligned with the value we imagine, we act.
Ben’s is a high impact story. There’s a father, like you and me, suffering. There’s a child, who could be ours, in danger of death. Paul, always inquisitive, wondered if his model and neurological information could be used with other kinds of stories as well. How about unpleasant but interesting stories? The Holocaust, for example, told in the film Schindler’s List by director Steven Spielberg. The atrocities of Nazism are described through a heroic character in mortal danger for his activities. The kind of movie where curiosity begs us to see it, but once seen, the emotional imprint of sadness and pain that something like this may have happened takes away the desire to see it again.
How does our body respond to unpleasant stories?
Paul’s next research tested stories about “hot” problems to see how people reacted to potentially unpleasant issues. He used first-person narratives from StoryCorps, a non-profit organization that collects and distributes personal stories. Six stories were chosen about racism, gun control and the September 11 terrorist attacks. Each anecdote lasted two to four minutes. As a “narrative impact assessment”, participants were invited to donate some of their profits to a charity associated with the story’s theme.
These stories were difficult to analyze because they varied substantially in structure and content. The neurological information collected reflected these variations. But as in Ben’s story, the unpleasant stories also generated attention and emotional impact that resulted in action. The action of donating money to a cause. For the brain, a good story, whether in the first person or in the third person, of a pleasant or unpleasant theme, will make us care about its characters.
In a good story, you get lost in that world, as Paul vividly described after watching Million Dollar Baby. The neurological information gathered in the investigations into the power of stories was complemented by surveys about the connection with the story and concern for the characters in the StoryCorps stories. Both narrative connection and concern for the characters predicted later donations to the story. This showed why stories affect behavior even after they are finished: our brain and our mind put us there, in the world of the story. And as proof, the increase in oxytocin left physical traces that lasted even a week after the experiment. As has been said: we remember emotions, not facts. Emotions that trigger the creation of oxytocin and thus are recorded in our body.
I learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel— Maya Angelou
PART 5 (very soon) — Do we really know what’s a good story?
We know about attention and the narrative arc. Why, then, is it so difficult to create a good story? was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.