The Brain on Storytelling: Building Emotional Connections

How can you build an emotional connection with your readers? Let’s take a peek at the brain and dig into the science behind reading, writing and empathy.

Narrative isn’t just found between the pages of a book. Whether you’re a writer or not, your life is woven with the stories you tell. It permeates all corners of your existence, from how you see the world, to how you interpret other people, to how you remember what you’ve done.

To tell stories is to be human.

The significance of narrative raises some interesting questions. What exactly happens in the brain when you're told a story? Is there a difference in brain activity between stories that build an emotional connection and those that don’t? And if there is a difference, how can you use that knowledge to form even stronger emotional bonds between your readers and your characters?

Good questions, perceptive reader. Let’s get some answers.

Stories are incredibly powerful things. They let you escape to another world, enrich your understanding of others, and entertain you for hours. They also have lasting effects on your behaviour.

Professor Paul Zak demonstrated just how influential stories can be when showing viewers an emotional story about a terminally ill child, Ben, and his father. Of the people who watched the video about Ben, almost all of them donated money afterwards. Why? It could be the impact Ben’s story had on their minds.

Two neurochemicals were produced in the brains of the people watching Ben’s story: cortisol and oxytocin.

Cortisol is a chemical involved in focusing your attention in on something important and, in Professor Zak’s experiment, was correlated with viewers’ levels of distress. In other words, the more distressed they felt, the more cortisol they produced and the more attention they paid to the story.

Oxytocin is a chemical involved in social bonding and feelings of trust, connection and empathy. The more oxytocin viewers produced, the more empathetic they felt towards the characters in the story.

These two neurochemicals make a particularly useful equation for writers:


Ah-ha! But wait—there’s more.

Professor Zak once again showed the power of brain chemistry in storytelling when he gave participants synthetic oxytocin before they watched a series of ads on dangerous behaviours. Those given the oxytocin boost were more empathetic, donating more to charity than those who didn’t receive any synthetic neurochemicals. These people were also more likely to take the ads’ messages to heart and avoid the dangerous behaviours they showed.

What does that mean for writers? That oxytocin can increase empathy in your readers and can motivate them to make positive changes in their lives. But you can’t just go around giving synthetic oxytocin to people before they start reading your book. How then can you elicit these responses and create that emotional connection? Professor Zak suggests attention and tension.

Capturing Attention and Raising Tension

In Creating the Optimal Physical Writing Space, we established that attention is selective. You can’t attend to everything at once and so you focus in on the things that you direct your attention towards or things that capture your attention. This is often referred to as the ‘attentional spotlight’. When that spotlight is shining on something, your attention is focused on it. The things around and outside the spotlight aren’t as well attended to.

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By holding the attention of your reader—having them shine their attentional spotlight on the story—you create the conditions needed for them to share the emotions of your characters and experience those emotions for themselves. This emotional resonance is known as ‘transportation’.

Now the question becomes how to sustain your audience’s attention. Remember that cortisol focuses attention and that an increase in cortisol is linked to an increase in distress? Having a story that features rising tension and emotional blows for the characters (and therefore the readers) can cause that elevated level of cortisol.

Use the dramatic arc to create and continually increase tension, culminating in the conflict-laden climax of the story. Introduce difficulties that your characters must overcome and tie them to their character arcs for maximal effect. Readers know what it’s like to face challenges, which lets them resonate with the obstacles your characters encounter, furthering transportation. Want to find out more? Check out Anatomy of an Attention-Grabbing Story.

That’s one part of the emotional connection equation down. One to go.

Establishing Empathy

So how to create empathy? Professor Zak found that character-driven stories produce more oxytocin; therefore, if you want your readers to feel empathy for your characters, don’t neglect your cast for an unrelenting plot. Balance is key. Give your characters’ personalities a solid basis, develop their relationships in a way that’s compelling and realistic, and give their internal conflicts as much attention as you do their external ones.

Want a more in-depth exploration of a character-driven story? Head on over to Creating the Reader-Character Connection and get your fill of empathy-creation techniques.

Until next time, let your characters drive the plot forwards, keep increasing the tension throughout the story, hit your cast with some heavy emotional blows, and you have the ingredients for creating a powerful bond with your readers.