Mothers, Oxytocin & Story

© Jomphong | Dreamstime.com - Mother Is Breast Feeding Photo

© Jomphong | Dreamstime.com – Mother Is Breast Feeding Photo

Is it a coincidence that storytelling creates the very neurochemical we may first experience as individual human beings while being breastfed?

The Moral Molecule

Studies conducted by Paul Zak, neuroeconomist and director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate School, demonstrated that meaningful, emotional stories altered participants’ neurochemistry. “Taking blood samples of subjects before and after reading a story about a father and his terminally ill son, Zak found their blood levels contained an increase of cortisol and also oxytocin after reading the story. Called the human bonding or empathy chemical, oxytocin is also released by breastfeeding mothers.”

Oxytocin has been shown to increase our bonds to our loved ones, inspire empathy for others, and spur us to give to charity. Our bodies produce it when we are experiencing a sense of connection and empathy. It is also the chemical that enables a woman to breastfeed her child.

And, it is the chemical our brains produce when we connect through story – either in person, in writing or by recording.

The Origin of Story

Is this the hidden-in-plain-sight clue about the origins of storytelling?

No one has identified when storytelling originated in human culture. Could we have evolved over eons hearing our very first stories at our mother’s breast? Could this joint activity have been the origin of the connection between story and oxytocin?

I imagine a Paleolithic mother. I see through her eyes as she gazes into the wondering eyes of her infant. This curious, exploratory young being would have been nourished equally by her breastmilk as by her words. This mother told tales of the plants & insects, of the trees & their offerings, of the winged and four-legged beasts. And this child listened, absorbed, as she was fed by the kindness and the wisdom of the most powerful woman in the world – her mother.

The joy of sharing this deep connection would have easily carried over into other relationships. Stories would have been a way to recreate that earliest of loving bonds. Sharing story would have made trust, empathy and community possible.

We may never know with certainty how storytelling came to be or why it is so central to our lives. We know by experience that it is an essential human activity, and now we have science that sheds some light on the neurological systems that make it so.

The Chemistry of Story

In this video, Paul Zak shares his story.