Storytelling’s Impact on Empathy (and the Architecture of the Brain)

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 9.00.18 AMPaul Zak, who TED Talks describes as, “a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics,” shares his thoughts and insights on the power of storytelling to affect change in the architecture of the brain in the below video — a collaboration between him, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, and animator Henrique Barone for the Future of Storytelling conference.

He opens with a powerful story that will pull at your heart strings, and uses these emotions as a gateway to reveal the complex workings of the moral and ethical brain. He concludes from his research that stories, with the right narrative arc, have a powerful impact on the brain, and the actions and behaviors that follow.

The implications for education in the design of learning environments and experiences cannot be understated. While we often put skills at the center of learning, what if we put people at the core — students’ well being and the stories that matter to them?

For more information about the collaborators of this video, check out:

  1. Paul Zak’s research.
  2. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” website.
  3. Animator Henrique Barone’s website.
  4. The “Future of Storytelling” conference.
Image Source: ScreenShot from above video

6 thoughts on “Storytelling’s Impact on Empathy (and the Architecture of the Brain)

  1. Fascinating! I will definitely check out the other resources you provided. I wonder if the effect is as powerful in stories that target other emotional responses, such as anger or disgust.

  2. Thanks for the provocation. As a teacher of young children -currently Grade Three – I use oral storytelling often. Early on in my teaching career I noticed that all the students could understand the story, and it felt like a level playing field for a diverse bunch of learners. Lately I have focused on stories centred on values, thinking that I can present stories about worthwhile human issues which transcend cultures.
    After watching your movie, I am now thinking of how my stories can activate brainpower in any learning activity. I am now wondering how I can get my students to do more of the storytelling themselves.

  3. This is exactly what the defending lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) did in the last courtroom scene of the movie, A TIME TO KILL. What powerful implications for the “emotional hook” in the classroom! Thank you for your service to education.

  4. Thanks for this wonderful post and video! I use storytelling related to the topic to engage adult learners when I train and teach, often stopping at the climax of the story to elicit their involvement. I can actually watch participants decide to stay in the room! Their body language changes, they lean forward, nod, their expressions change, they put away whatever they were doing to pay attention to what’s going on. I find storytelling to be very effective and you’ve provided the science for why it works, thank you!

  5. Great research. I wonder if this is what happens in people with autism. Whether verbal or non-verbal, they seem to lack empathy and fail to understand the actions of others.

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