There is no difference between the first story ever written over 4,000 years ago and you telling your best friend about that cringey date you went on at the weekend. Okay, so there are a few minor differences, but essentially, they are the same thing: stories.
The first written story tells the epic tale of King Gilgamesh’s search for a monster. It was carved into a stone tablet in the second millennium BC. While that’s truly awesome, it’s not as remarkable as the fact that we will never know what the first story actually was. Humans have been sharing stories with each other since before we knew how to write.
Cave paintings across the world give testimony to how our ancestors told stories over 20,000 years ago, even before we consider the millions of stories that have never been written or passed down. The stories our ancestors told were about the daily struggles of finding food, or a funny anecdote about a neighbor perhaps. They might have recounted a bad date with a boy from another village, or told a cautionary tale to stop children entering the woods.
Humans have changed a lot over the past 20,000 years, but we all still love stories, whatever form they take. As children, we beg our parents to read to us at bedtime, and we gather around a firepit to hear ghost stories, relive that lousy date with a friend at the local pub, and tell our grandparents about our busy week.
We use stories instinctually as part of our everyday speech. We often don’t even notice we are telling a story; we think of it as just having a chat. But the recent pandemic took away our ability to go to a bar or the local park and do just that – have a chat. Why did this affect us so profoundly? Why do we love stories? Why do we feel good when we tell stories or listen to a friend telling a story? Do they actually make us happier?
Lucky for you, we’ve got a few answers.
Why was storytelling an evolutionary leap?
Some people may argue that the difference between humans and animals is how we learned to use tools or the first time we made fire. In fact, the difference between humans and animals is much more fundamental: it’s our language.
Animals have many ways of communicating with each other. They flick their tails, puff their feathers, bark, screech, shout, purr, roar, headbutt, and paw. But how they communicate is not as important as what they communicate. A monkey screeches a warning to a fellow about a nearby lion, but he won’t give his friend a blow-by-blow account of how he came across the lion. That same lion might purr its approval to a new mate, but it is unlikely to discuss it later with a friend over a quick antelope snack.
The difference is small but crucial. To communicate a need is necessary for survival. Communicating for joy, connection, happiness or anger is very different. When the first human warned another about a poisonous berry by explaining how ill it made her baby yesterday, and how that ruined her night’s sleep, we took an evolutionary leap which no other animal has yet to take. We told a story, and it took us to the top of the food chain.
We’ve come a long way since that poisonous berry. Nowadays, when we think of stories, we think of Harry Potter, Shakespeare, Hollywood films, and the New York Times best-seller list. Stories may have changed format from cave paintings and stone carvings, but they are essentially no different. They are a connection. People seem to forget that humans, or our ancestors, had been telling stories for thousands of years before someone thought of writing one down or turning it into a film.
Why do we tell stories?
But why are stories so important to us? Why have they stood the test of time when other things have been lost to time?
Essentially, stories are both how we bond and how we give meaning to the world around us. For example, your friend might not have seen you this morning, and have no reason to think of you. But when you call them to tell them about the cute guy you saw on the bus or to complain that your washing machine broke and flooded your flat, you include them in your life. They share your joy and excitement or your pain and frustration. These bonds tie us to each other.
Stories are universal. They bridge social divides far more effectively than money, gender, nationality, age, culture, or religion ever will. No matter how old you are, the frustration and despair of a flooded kitchen resonate in the same way. And you know what they say: a problem shared is a problem half-solved. (In this case, we suggest you also share this story with a plumber.)
Additionally, stories are colored by your views, beliefs, and life experiences. The stories you have to tell set you apart from the other 7.8 billion people on this planet. Stories make us unique. When you tell a story, you are saying, “This is me. This is what I think is important enough to share, and I want to share it with you.” In short, telling stories makes us who we are.
So how does telling a story affect you? It turns out that stories have been shown scientifically to be good for you.
According to leading neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak, when you tell a story, your brain releases a hormone called oxytocin. This is literally the feel-good hormone. It does everything from releasing stress and tension to boosting feelings of happiness, trust, and empathy. Even if the story you are telling is sad or makes you angry, these emotions are temporary. When you tell a story, you remember the emotion, but your brain still releases oxytocin. That means lots of feel-good juice running around our brain and overtaking the feeling of anger or sadness.
The effect of oxytocin is longer lasting than the other emotions you feel. Telling your friend about an awful date might make you cringe, but afterward, you will feel better. That’s because oxytocin is flooding through you even once you’ve finished. This means that when you tell a story, you are quite literally making yourself happy. If that wasn’t enough, oxytocin has been found to make people more generous and empathetic. The bond you form when telling a story stays with you after you’ve finished. You’re tricking yourself into being happier and kinder!
But being a storyteller also helps define who you are. We’ve all been in a situation where we’ve heard the same story from three totally different perspectives. After all, there are (at least) two sides to every story. When you tell a story, you focus on the parts that are important to you. You skip over the things that don’t seem important. Did the kitchen flood because the washing machine was broken, or did it flood because – as you told your housemate – he’d filled it too full? Was the date really that bad, or was she actually nice, but you were in a bad mood?
What is irrelevant to you may be vital information to someone else. When we decide what to exclude and include, we let others know what our priorities are. The same story told by multiple people can teach us about the dynamics of a group as well as about what is important to each person. Therefore, telling stories not only builds emotional bonds, but also networks of trust. We learn who is trustworthy, who we like, who is reliable, and who is observant.
So, if you’re looking to build trust and connect with others, try to be the best storyteller ever. I bet you know at least one person who always holds people spellbound at the dinner table or can entertain children for hours. Well, they aren’t born with those skills; they learned them. And you can too. Studies have found there are certain things you can do to make a story more compelling, such as:
- Using hand gestures
- Attempting different voices or accents
- Using facial expressions
- Making eye contact
- Using pauses to build tension
- Excluding certain details until the end
All the points above are small social cues that not only demonstrate your passion for the subject but also make the story more memorable. Your enthusiasm is infectious and will make a story more engaging than simply listing events. Think about telling your best friend about an awkward date. You want your friend to cringe and genuinely understand how awful it was. You wouldn’t just give them the highlights. You would go into details about the embarrassing outfit your date had on and how rude they were to the waiter. To top it off, you would tell them how loudly they talked about their strangely close relationship with their cat. That’s cringey and memorable.
According to research conducted at the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, listening to a story has the same effect on your brain as telling a story. The study showed that people who were emotionally involved in a story had a 47% increase in oxytocin in their brains compared with those who listened to generic information.
In fact, the same study showed that the amount and location of the oxytocin released in the brain of the storyteller is mirrored in the brain of the listener. Listening to others tell stories affects your brain in the same way as if you had experienced it directly and retold the story to someone else. The stress of a soaking floor, the tension of an awkward date, or the happiness of receiving a gift can literally be passed on. The oxytocin in your brain picks up on the social cues from the storyteller and conveys to your body the stress, tension, and drama experienced by the other person. A compelling storyteller is quite literally changing your brain by giving you their thoughts and feelings. That’s not emotional; that’s chemical.
Listening to a friend talk about their awful date reminds you of that time you went on a date with someone who brought their mum along with them. This is because your brain responds to your friend’s memory by providing you with your own. Your brain brings those memories to the front of your mind and gives you all the cringey, shameful signals it gave you at the time. Flooding your brain with a mix of chemicals, you truly understand how your friend felt because you’re feeling the same thing.
When you connect to a story, the frontal and parietal cortices in your brain experience more activity. Other parts of your brain also react. For example, if someone describes food in detail, your sensory cortex will react. Research has shown that your brain can experience increased activity in specific areas for 2 to 3 days afterward. This, in turn, makes you around 22 times more likely to remember details than if they were just presented to you as facts. A good story will stay with you.
We learn from the social cues we give while talking. Hand gestures, interruptions, stutters, laughing, facial expressions, and even a person’s eyes tell us a lot. It’s why, if we can’t meet up face-to-face, a video call is better than a phone call. VideoSocialize, Facetime, Skype and Zoom are all vital for ensuring social interactions are as smooth and natural as possible.
How to start telling and listening to stories right now
Listening to and telling stories gives us a positive physical reaction as well as helping us form emotional and social bonds. Even if you are shy and don’t want to tell a story, just being there to listen to someone else’s story gives you the same mental boost. Storytelling happens in many forms. It doesn’t just have to be over dinner and wine with a friend or in the office kitchen with a colleague. For example, you could:
1. Call someone
Just picking up the phone and having a chat with someone can make you feel better. You might lose out on some of the physical cues, but you can still establish an emotional connection. Try telling a friend about the best thing that happened to you all week. You could even listen to see if you can hear their reaction to your story. Being aware of the effect of storytelling will give you a double boost. Not only do you get the same oxytocin surge as normal, but when you can identify their positive reaction, your brain will reward you with even more happy chemicals for making a friend happy!
2. Connect with a stranger
The midst of a global pandemic is probably not the best time to chat with a stranger in the street, especially if they aren’t wearing a mask, but chatting with someone new is actually a good thing for your brain. Online portals such as VideoSocialize can help connect you to like-minded people to help you make new friends. Interacting with new people gives your brain a boost and allows you to form new connections.
3. Get to know a neighbor
Having a conversation with a neighbor over a fence or across the streetis a great way to learn something new. The face-to-face interaction will leave you feeling happier, and since you live close by, you already have something in common. Building on that shared bond will establish a good relationship – and then you can politely ask them to stop their dog from barking at 5 am.
If you can’t meet or chat with people, an online game will give your brain that oxytocin you crave. Gaming completely immerses you in a story. You are both the storyteller and the listener. You can make choices that directly affect the outcome, but at the same time, you are bearing witness as the story unfolds. That’s why gaming is so addictive.
If all else fails, listening to an audiobook is also a good way to boost your oxytocin. Listening is more effective than reading because it allows the visual part of your mind to wander and imagine instead of looking at words on a page. Studies have confirmed that the black and white of text is dulling to the visual part of your brain. Listening to a story gives this part of your mind the freedom to create its own imagery. This means your mind is more involved in a story, which makes it more memorable and gives you a mood boost for longer than reading.
We all remember when vlogging took over the world a few years ago. Rather than fading like other trends, it’s stuck around. Why? Because vlogging is essentially storytelling. Even over a camera and after several days of editing, we all still love watching vlogs online. You’ll probably never meet your favorite YouTube stars, but when they vlog, they evoke the same emotional and mental reaction in your brain as when you chat with your best friend. This is why you feel like you know them. You do know them; your brain is telling you how they feel when you watch their vlogs.
As you can see, stories are everywhere. From bad dates and broken washing machines to YouTube stars, chatting online, and audiobooks, you are surrounded by stories all day, every day, and your brain thanks you for it. The chemical boost in your brain and the stimulus it provides can last for days at a time. Telling stories, listening to stories, and even reading stories, keeps your brain healthy, active, and connected. It improves your mood with all those feel-good chemicals.
With the current global pandemic and consequent isolation, our brains literally have fewer happy chemicals. Now more than ever, digital platforms that bring us together in a safe way are an important part of our lives. Technology like VideoSocialize and online gaming allows us to connect with others, promoting and protecting our physical health while saving our mental health one story at a time.
Articles on the videosocialize.com blog are commissioned by VideoSocialize from talented writers with a variety of backgrounds. All articles copyright VideoSocialize. Would you be interested in sharing your thoughts on this article in a 4 person Zoom discussion which would be uploaded to YouTube? If so, please contact us.
Emily is a freelance writer and editor based in the south of France. After graduating from the University of Southampton in 2016 with a degree in English Literature she moved to London to work for a popular publishing house. Last year, she moved to France and began freelancing for multiple international clients. Her work is read by over 17 million people each month. When not writing, she can be found hiking with her dog, Hugo.