Lessons in empathy (and chemistry)

Never underestimate the power of a good book.

By Patti Andrews


Never underestimate the power of a good book.

By Patti Andrews

Ever found yourself so deep into a story that time slips away? Or experienced a bittersweet feeling when a movie ends, knowing you won’t meet those characters again? 

Turns out, it’s not a personal quirk—it’s a genuine scientific phenomenon called ‘narrative transportation’. Coined by American researchers Melanie C Green and Timothy C Brook, the Narrative Transportation Theory suggests storytelling can serve as a vehicle, transporting readers from their beach towels and window nooks to the vivid landscapes of literary worlds. 

This process, intricately woven into our brains, goes beyond information processing and entertainment; when we are ‘transported’, our emotional responses become more tangible and our ability to empathise with the characters deepens. It’s not confined to the time we spend reading the book, but it changes our brain chemistry and shapes our emotional landscape moving forward. This is commonly known as empathy. 

So, what is empathy and why is it so good for us? 

Helen Riess, psychiatrist, researcher and author of the book The Empathy Effect, describes empathy as the ability to connect empathically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being and to act with compassion. It is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively and thrive as a society. 

For Australian author Gabrielle Tozer, the partnership of storytelling and empathy is inseparable. As she tells FW, “Whether I’m writing for preschoolers, teenagers or adults, having an emotional connection is a key part of my process and stories.” 

“I really dig into what and how I want my reader to feel. Because I always want them to feel something, whether that’s happy, amused, sad, moved, angry or entertained–maybe all the above at different points in the story.” 

A writer of everything from children’s books to fiction for teens and adults, Tozer playfully likens her role to that of an ‘evil puppeteer’. Manipulating characters, words and themes to elicit reactions. She pauses to acknowledge the limits of this influence, recognising that readers bring their own wealth of experience to the page.

“There are characters that audiences slowly learn to empathise with, like Layla in Remind Me How This Ends, who seems a bit tough and her walls are up at the start,” Tozer says of the character from her 2017 boy-meets-girl-again young adult fiction. 

“Yet after I drip-feed information about what’s really going on for her behind the scenes or put her in situations that reveal why she is acting the way she is, it starts to make more sense to the reader and they begin to see things through her eyes.”

“In my view, one of the critical elements for an author to effectively provoke emotions in the reader is to draw them into the story so effortlessly that the audience feels like they are in the character’s or person’s shoes,“ Tozer explains. “I want to weave as much humanity into each story as possible, all while keeping it entertaining and creative.” 


“These days, the way many of us consume information is like having a fire hose held up to our face and then turning it on at full pressure.”

The power of storytelling in encouraging empathy has long been acknowledged, supported by research in both psychology and neuroscience. And if you’re not careful, you can easily find yourself transported into Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole of studies and findings on this topic.

In 2012, Dr. Paul Zak, a pioneer in neuroeconomics, conducted a study where participants watched a cartoon of a father explicitly discussing his young son’s battle with cancer. The study involved taking blood samples before and after the viewing, revealing–most notably–the oxytocin levels were higher after watching the video. 

The higher the oxytocin levels, the more empathy participants reported. As phase two of the study, when asked to donate money to a charity or a stranger, oxytocin levels correlated with the amount given—more oxytocin equated to greater generosity.

“We’ve identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. I’ve dubbed oxytocin the ‘moral molecule,’” Dr. Zak explains in his research paper, “What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us. In many situations, these cues motivate us to engage and help others, especially if the other person seems to need our help.”

Dr. Zak’s findings have particularly interesting implications for education, across a wide range of sectors. From healthcare professionals and first responders to business leaders and managers, storytelling can contribute to positive social and psychological effects. As screens and devices become intermediaries for human interactions and the risk of losing touch with the nuances of emotions intensifies, this becomes even more important.

When asked how technology has altered the way we create and consume narratives, Tozer acknowledges the evolving nature of storytelling. “These days, the way many of us consume information is like having a fire hose held up to our face and then turning it on at full pressure,” she says. “Many people, myself included at times, inhale news and stories in bite-sized pieces, which may only be skimming the surface on topics that require much more nuanced takes and additional context in the conversation.”

Despite the challenges, she believes that exposure to real human experiences behind a story will encourage greater empathy in all of us. “Some statistics are so horrific that they take my breath away and yet everyone keeps scrolling. The more we can know about the real humans impacted in a story, I would hope that then creates more empathy,” Tozer says.

As a self-proclaimed ‘highly sensitive person’, Tozer’s receptiveness to universal themes such as heartache, loneliness and anger allows her to find emotional entry points. “There’s always a way-in for me emotionally if the artist has done their job properly. I can be ‘scream-crying’ the lyrics to a Olivia Rodrigo break-up song in my car and, only afterwards, remember that I’m actually a married mum of two!” she laughs.

“But that’s the power of storytelling and emotions. Good storytelling can take you to endless places.”

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