Storytelling, the Dramatic Arc and Empathy

In healthcare today, it is the stories we share–

  • …a save by a young resident physician
  • …the bravery of a young father to face countless experimental cancer treatments to spend one more Thanksgiving with his kids
  • …the strength of young mothers who repeatedly share their stories of loss to protect the children of others, or
  • …the ability of new technology to detect illness in time to preserve a life…

that move us to action–slowly in some instances, more quickly in others.

More and more, research is showing that stories designed with classic story structure have the power to move mountains–and us–by altering brain chemistry, and as a result, behavior. The following short video is a narrative version of such research, told by lead investigator and neuroeconomist, Paul Zak. As the story goes, Zak and his team created a narrative story about a young father struggling with his 2-year-old son’s cancer diagnosis. They also created a fact driven story as a control and recruited subjects to watch both types of story. They measured blood levels of oxytocin and cortisol in both groups and then asked both groups to donate money to charity once they had finished viewing the story. What the team found was that viewers who watched the narrative version of the story had higher levels of both oxytocin and cortisol, and donated a greater amount of money. What this tells me is that we are putty in the hands of a good storyteller—and that good movies should come with a warning similar to taking a sedating drug—don’t sign anything important for 24 hours after viewing!


What will you do with the empathy our healthcare stories evoke? Will you act on what you feel in 2014?

4 Comments on “Storytelling, the Dramatic Arc and Empathy”

  1. Carole Hemmelgarn says:

    Hello Tracy,

    I loved this blog because as you know I believe in the power of storytelling. I am saving this one to my narrative archives.


    Someday I will be a guest blogger —-I promise.

  2. Chris says:

    I love this ~ and believe the video clip provides important science to those who may scoff at storytelling as “soft stuff”. I suspect this could be a great discussion starter at some of our meetings. I too will save it for future use!

    • Tracy Granzyk MS says:

      Some believe it’s the soft stuff that will save healthcare 🙂 Or at the very least, provide a much needed complement to the “hard stuff”. Glad you enjoyed it!

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