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Storytellers are like meth-heads

Cognitive psychology is always discovering interesting new things about the way our brains function. One recent piece of research out of Harvard (“Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding”) has some remarkable implications for the theory of the auteur, social media and experience design that require some difficult self-reflection on the difference between food and meth (or sex and cocaine, if you prefer.)

What these researchers discovered is the role of dopamine in storytelling after watching what the brain did in MRIs – your brain produces more dopamine when telling a story about yourself than when telling a story about someone else, and when you know an audience is paying attention than when you’re told no one will hear it. What’s dopamine, you ask? It is the way your gamified brain gives you immediate rewards for behaviors that improve survivability (like eating a big meal or having sex or laughing) and the mechanism by which certain drugs (like cocaine and meth) trick your brain into having that same feeling. It is the chemical responsible for reward, pleasure, goal-setting and addiction.

As the researchers point out, dopamine cycles are the beginnings of many virtuous cycles (including “by engendering social bonds and social alliances between people; by eliciting feedback from others to attain self-knowledge; by taking advantage of performance advantages that result from sharing one’s sensory experience; or by obviating the need to discover firsthand what others already know, thus expanding the amount of know-how any single person can acquire in a lifetime.”) However, science also knows that dopamine lies at the heart of most addictions, because dopamine is the ultimate reward structure of the brain.

If you think of yourself as a “professional storyteller,” you might actually be a dopamine addict. The Harvard study suggests you’ll continue to pick the opportunity to tell your story to an audience over other options that might produce more money or other secondary rewards. Do you know how special you feel when you know people are paying attention to your story? Yeah, stop bogarting all the dopamine, you paparazzi-baiting award-seekers, and try instead to make your audience feel that way. But that’s a double-edged sword as well, and any quick review of social media dynamics (with the share and like and reblog as triggers for dopamine) shows that dopamine addiction can lead to all kinds of horrible exhibitionism as much as it can elevate human connection.

If you think of yourself as an experience or interactive designer, it is your responsibility to aim your participants’ dopamine rewards towards those virtuous cycles the brain wants to encourage in human society. Otherwise, you’re no better than a meth-dealer.

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