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[The Science Behind Storytelling] Serotonin

It was a typical Monday morning in the office, and Sarah was feeling down, with a big presentation to give later that week, worried sick about how it would go.

As she sat at her desk, Dave walked by and noticed her glum expression.

"Hey, Sarah, what's up?" he asked.

"I'm just feeling a bit nervous about my presentation," she replied.

"Don't worry, you got this," Dave said with a reassuring smile. "But you know what always helps me when I'm feeling down?"

"What's that?" Sarah asked, intrigued.

"Laughter!" Dave exclaimed. "Come on, I read some research that supported this!", he continued seeing how skeptical she was.

Finally, Sarah decided to humor Dave and watch a funny video with him. As they laughed together, Sarah felt a sense of lightness and positivity wash over her.

"You know what? I actually feel better," she said, surprised.

"See, I told you!" Dave said with a grin.

Over the next few days, Sarah made a point to incorporate humor and positivity into her presentation. She shared funny anecdotes and made jokes, and the audience responded positively. After the presentation, a few even commented on how engaging and entertaining it had been. An exquisite feedback, considering the usual silence that was usually taking over!

As Sarah left the room, she couldn't help but think back to that Monday morning conversation with Dave. She realized that sometimes, a little bit of laughter and positivity can go a long way - both in the workplace and in life.

Why was David right?

Similar to dopamine, serotonin is a slow-acting neurotransmitter with an important role in sensing pleasure.[1] Serotonergic neurons are omnipresent in the brain, with a higher concentration on the brain stem - the part responsible for basic and involuntary body functions like breathing.

As a result, serotonin has multiple functions [2]: it regulates mood, vomiting, and migraine and influences the pathophysiology of hypertension and irritable bowel syndrome by modulating the degree of blood vessel constrictions and gastrointestinal motility.

In correlation with dopamine, serotonin regulates sleep, waking [3], learning ability [4], and memory formation [5].

Serotonin can be activated through laughter. A study [6] involving sixty-four middle-aged women with depression demonstrated that laughter therapy can help middle-aged women by lessening depression and providing important grounds for depression control. On the opposite side of the spectrum, lower serotonin levels have been linked to depression [7] and schizophrenia [8].

Though no storytelling can directly influence serotonin levels, adding some humor or other means to trigger laughter in the audience will increase, together with the endorphins, the sensation of feeling well.

You can read more from me on this subject (and many other topics) in my latest book, Storytelling Fuel. From Quarry to Jewel. (free to read on Kindle, with a Kindle Unlimited subscription).


[1] Seymour, B., Daw, N., Roiser, J., Dayan, P., Dolan, R.(2012). Serotonin Selectively Modulates Reward Value in Human Decision-Making. Journal of Neuroscience, 32 (17) 5833-5842.

[2] Mohammad-Zadeh, L. F., Mose,s L., Gwaltney-Brant, S.M. (2008), Serotonin: a review,

[3] Monti, J., Jantos, H. (2008). The roles of dopamine and serotonin, and of their receptors, in regulating sleep and waking. Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, Volume 172, p. 625-646, ISSN 0079-6123, ISBN 9780444532350.

[4] Olvera-Cortés, M. E., Anguiano-Rodríguez, P., López-Vázquez, M.A., Cervantes Alfaro, J.M. (2008), Serotonin/dopamine interaction in learning. Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, Volume 172, p. 567-602, ISSN 0079-6123, ISBN 9780444532350.

[5] González-Burgos, I., & Feria-Velasco, A. (2008). Serotonin/dopamine interaction in memory formation. Progress in Brain Research, 172, p. 603-623.

[6] Mi Youn Cha, Hae Sook Hong (2015). Effect and Path Analysis of Laughter Therapy on Serotonin, Depression and Quality of Life in Middle-aged Women. Korean Acad Nurs.; 45(2):221-230.

[7] Cowen, P., Browning, M. (2015), What has serotonin to do with depression?,

[8] Frazer, A., Hensler, J. (1999), Serotonin (part of the book “Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. 6th edition.” by Siegel GJ, Agranoff BW, Albers RW, et al.), editors. Philadelphia: Lippincott-Raven; 1999.

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