Your brain on joy

Brain wave study reveals why one type of story can connect people

Happy stories cause two positive outcomes more often than sad ones.

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Humans are storytellers.

Every culture in history has its own legends, myths, and records — and modern people are no exception.

But when it comes to remembering the finer details, does the content of a story matter?

Yes, research suggests — and some types of stories may be more conducive to creating connections with others.

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A study published in the journal eNeuro on November 8 dives into how stories with different emotional overtones are processed in the brains of storytellers and listeners.

Most study participants were listeners, and one was selected as a speaker.

Xie et al., eNeuro 2021

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The speaker had to watch a video story and relay it to the listeners.

Then the listeners were asked to recall what happened.

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The researchers measured the participants’ brain waves with an EEG as they listened to stories with consistently sad, happy, or neutral emotions.

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Participants also had to rank how closely connected they felt to the storyteller once they heard a story.

Happy stories left a bigger impression on participants than sad ones.

Not only did they feel more connected to the storyteller — participants also recalled more details from their tale.

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Here's how feelings of connectivity correlated with the emotional nature of a story.

Xie et al., eNeuro 2021

And here's the correlation between recall and the emotional context of the tale.

Xie et al., eNeuro 2021

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And the EEGs showed that stories caused similar brain activity in the listeners and speaker, especially when the listeners said they felt more connected.

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Other studies have recorded this phenomenon of physiological synching — even our heart rates will fluctuate at the same points in a story.

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However, the researchers note that stories usually have more variables to them in the real world, such as social context and vividness of the tale.

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The findings could help us understand how social connection and brain synchrony are linked.

But more research is needed to determine how happy, sad, and neutral stories help us build relationships.

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