Dr. Paul Zak On Brain Chemistry and Story Structure

Dr. Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, is fascinated by stories (specifically, the rising and falling tension in Shakespeare's 5 act plays and the standard 3 act Hollywood storytelling structure - often referred to in the West as "the dramatic arc").

In the video above, Dr. Zak explores whether story structure alone can actually effect neurochemistry.

This short video, directed and edited by Kirby Ferguson and animated by Henrique Barone, seems a bit hyperbolic to me. I'm not sure that a relationship between narrative structure (independent of theme and character?) and empathic response is actually what is being measured. 

For example, I'm not convinced that it is story structure alone that is triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin in Dr. Zak's studies.

Still... I'm eager to see more data about the classical dramatic arc - as outlined by the German playwright Gustav Freytag in 1863 (see the illustration below) - and what moves the listener.

Is it possible to measure the impact of a story by measuring physical reactions - like brain chemistry?

And if it is possible - should that sort of data be collected and used by ethical storytellers?

[As sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote: "not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."]

It would be nice to see a confirmation about the role of structure in successful storytelling. 

And understanding the mystery of why certain story structures (e.g, the Hero's Journey) seem to reoccur around the globe is of course fascinating.

But I have ethical qualms about research that treats the audience like a test tube.

Even if Romeo and Juliet can be measured and described as a manipulation of brain chemistry, the ritual of experiencing that play - or any great work of dramatic literature - should not be stripped of awe and beauty.

And, unless a methodology exists that controls for other things that might be moving me (e.g., theme and character elements), I'm not prepared to get too excited about Dr. Zak's research.

Nevertheless, the idea that humans are biologically sensitive to certain forms of communication might explain a lot.

Perhaps we are in fact hardwired for the monomyth. 

Could it be that receptiveness to a well-organized story is innately human?

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