We may think it’s hyperbole when a person says, “I love that book.” Many believe “love” is something reserved for human interactions—with the noted exception of animals and pets. We understand, or think we understand, that loving a book or a movie isn’t the same as loving a spouse, child, or partner. The truth is a bit more startling—the only real difference is in the intensity and duration.
Your brain’s interpretation of “love and affection” is measured by production and release of a chemical—oxytocin. This hormone is responsible for human bonding. It might be argued that it is the very essence of all the “positive” human emotions and actions. Society, compassion, maternity, love, friendship, sex, and charity.
When a mother gives birth, a multi-step process of oxytocin release occurs. Its presence throughout the initial months ensures mom and baby are bonded. A mother will tell you that bond is an unbreakable thing. A thing she lives for and would die for.
A similar process occurs when two people engage in intimacy. If you’ve ever wondered why your friend is so in love with that jack-ass, the answer is oxytocin.
And, yes, dark chocolate can and does create a similar release. So the next time someone tells you that chocolate doesn’t taste as good as skinny feels—tell them B.S., because in fact…it tastes just like love.
The release of oxytocin makes us feel good. It causes humans to bond at a level that is no less mysterious for knowing the cause. It makes us act in unison with others. It has power over rational thought. And experiences that cause its release have an impact on our attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. Besides things like motherhood, sex, and chocolate there is another activity that releases oxytocin—storytelling.
Or more accurately—story listening.
In recent studies conducted by Paul J. Zak, researchers measured oxytocin levels of participants who listened, watched, or read a story. The research provided a number of discoveries—all with interesting implications for writers.
If…and that’s an important if…the story can hold a person’s attention then it has the power to influence the individual’s behavior and feelings. Attention is a difficult thing to wrestle from the human brain. The average adult can pay attention for about eighteen minutes and for most things like Ads, videos, and podcasts, attention spans drop to below four minutes…if the story doesn’t engage.
However, if a writer can garner that attention, the findings demonstrate that readers do in fact “fall in love” with characters. Fall in love being measured as the production and release of oxytocin. We may say “it’s not the same,” but as far as the brain is concerned, the love of a fiction character is different only by intensity (the amount of the hormone present) and the duration (how long after we continue to love Harry Potter).
This scientific evidence starts to lend understanding to the power of a story series’ hold over readers, why readers don’t get bored with familiar story lines, and why for decades Harlequin Romances reigned supreme.
More interesting is the influence a story narrative can have on the reader or viewer. The presence of oxytocin bind us in interesting ways to the characters and their story experiences. As pointed out in Zak’s research the effects are more far-reaching than just in the individual’s feelings—it affects their behavior. It is the reason why we feel more in the holiday spirit after watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (even after the hundredth time), or how a story like The Christmas Carol had the power to transform Christmas into the holiday celebration it is today. And it is why a film like Black Fish can kill Sea-world’s attendance numbers.
It is also why it may be an excellent idea to take your wife or girlfriend to see 50 Shades of Grey or at least stand by when she’s reading the book—just looking out for you bro’s.
Stories that inspire also create greater charity and helpfulness. When characters in a story, love, hope, and help, the reader is influenced to do the same thing after they leave the story world. In Zak’s studies, their evidence supported the contention that stories that make people “feel good” result in higher levels of “giving” and “helping” immediately following exposure to the narrative.
Interestingly, the “bad” stuff in a story—murder, abuse, violence—don’t create the same influences. The reason is that seeing or reading about these behaviors doesn’t result in increased oxytocin levels in the brain—anger increases a different hormone: testosterone.
So if the story has a great narrative then at the end, you’re a lover not a fighter…unless the fighting is for noble causes like love.
Perhaps writers have alway known this to be true.
In 1839, Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, the pen is mightier than the sword. One hundred and seventy-five years later, it appears that science has proved that to be true.
Influence is the strongest form of persuasion and coercion is the lowest. With a sword we can only coerce others through threat and it dissipates when the sword is gone. Through words and stories, however, we can influence others to make better and more positive choices…on their own, because the story remains a part of them, replete with the association of those words and the pleasant production of oxytocin.
Does this mean we should all switch to romance writing? No.
I write dark fiction, but each story is about human relationships, hope, and often love. For me, the darkness simply makes the light that much brighter and that much more important. If my characters can bring a single tear to your eye, a single smile to your lips, or a single moment of worry or celebration…then my world will become yours.
The power we have as writers is to create engaging stories. Narratives filled with believable characters overcoming adversity. Stories that connect the readers to the characters. Stories that are dark or light, funny or sad, but that, in the end, create a bond between the writer, the characters, and the readers. Tales that for a moment instill feelings of our most noble emotions— love and hope.
Love and Hope—the two ingredients that have the power to change the world.