The Healing and Inspiring Power of Story: A Glance at the Science

Craig Chalquist, PhD
Founding Editor of
Immanence: The Journal of
Applied Story, Myth, and Folklore

Our Stories Define Us

            In 1851, a patient named Rika van B. saw Dr. Andries Hoek for what we now call psychotherapy. She let him hypnotize her but insisted on active participation in the treatment. As she recounted the sources of her trauma, her symptoms improved. After a year of treatment, she left. Hoek’s only disappointment was that she had decided not to keep working with him as a co-therapist.

            When Beethoven began to lose his hearing, he was, for a time, suicidal, as his letters reflect. He saw himself as a helpless victim of unkind Fate. How could anyone imagine a deaf composer? But the more he sat with it, the more he imagined it. His art, he realized, mattered more than his happiness. He kept going, and a day came when he wrote in the margins of his Hammerklavier sonata, “I will seize Fate by the throat; it will never wholly overcome me.”

            A former sergeant of Marines blamed himself for deciding not to rescue men of his captured and then executed by enemy forces. Failing to forgive himself, he caused himself such rage and self-hatred that he landed in jail for assaulting his family. This landed him in one of my men’s groups. When new information came his way proving that he had acted correctly and, furthermore, saved several other men’s lives, his entire life turned around.

            All three of these troubled people—the quasi-psychotic patient, the despairing composer, the self-loathing combat veteran—traded in constrictive stories that made them miserable for larger stories that led to greater health and wholeness.

            All three are examples of how the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we belong, what we value, what we most desire, and what we’ve done or should have done lead tangibly and directly to illness or wellness, obsolescence or adaptation, failure or achievement, conflict or community.

What Science Says about the Power of Story

            “Stories,” notes developmental psychologist Roger Schank in Tell Me A Story, “form the framework and structure through which humans sort, understand, relate, and file experience into memory.”

            For those of us who rely on storytelling for personal and cultural transformation, the power of story is not news. Therapy was called “the talking cure” for a reason; it is also a listening cure as clients’ hidden stories are received and explored in privacy. Storytelling is relied on for social justice work (especially when accounts of the oppressed and marginalized emerge into the open), education at all levels, social research, career training, crisis management, conflict resolution, environmental science, sales and marketing, end-of-life care, religious instruction, and political persuasion. According to Maxine Alterio, who researches storytelling at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, storytelling encourages cooperation, links theory to practice, honors multiple perspectives, and makes sense of experience. People who listen to stories build new knowledge, learn critical thinking skills, and understand situational complexities that surpass more formulaic explanations.

            Inviting listeners into a story elicits trust, defuses resistance, and encourages cooperation by foregoing pressure tactics to offer a shared imaginal landscape. A push into a pre-set agenda is much less appealing than a pull into a field of mutual creativity between teller and listener.

            It’s useful to know what scientific research can tell us about the alluring effectiveness of good storytelling. Here are some examples:

  • According to molecular biologist J. Medina, “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this’” (Brain Rules, 2014). The hippocampus—a brain structure involved with memory—forms episodic representations of the emotional meaning of events, and by doing so influences the amygdala (involving fear responses, anxiety, and sexuality) and other important neural complexes (E. Phelps, “Human Emotion and Memory: Interactions of the Amygdala and Hippocampal Complex,” 2004).
  • Storytelling elicits key activities in the brains of listeners, including empathy; fMRI data illuminates how people listening to the same stories show neural synchronization and are influenced by the group (U. Hasson et al, “Brain-to Brain Coupling: A Mechanism for Creating and Sharing a Social World,” 2012).
  • Reading a story creates empathy in the reader, especially a story made from parable or allegory (A. Shuman, “Speaking from Experience: Storytelling in Everyday Life,” 2006). It also enhances the ability to reason about events and tolerate uncertainty, both enhancing well-being (N. O’Sullivan et al, “‘Shall I compare thee’: The neural basis of literary awareness, and its benefits to cognition,” 2015). 
  • Characters in stories elicit the neural network that helps us imagine the inner life of other people; this is true whether the stories are told or conveyed through movement or drawings (Y. Yuan et al, “Storytelling Is Intrinsically Mentalistic: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study of Narrative Production across Modalities,” 2018).
  • Reading about a story character moves the reader from observer to participant, living inside the character’s imagined life and changing the reader’s self-concept, attitudes, and behavior (G. Kaufman and L. Libby, “Changing Beliefs and Behavior through Experience-Taking,” 2012).
  • Rather than just the content of a text, readers tend to remember the mental model (in other words, the story) they built from the text (G. Bower and D. Morrow, “Mental Models in Narrative Comprehension,” 1990; also, D. Kidd and E. Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” 2013).
  • In many ways, brains behave similarly in different people who see the same movie U. (Hasson et al, “Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natal Vision,” 2004).
  • Watching award-winning television drama can enhance the ability to understand others’ minds (J. Black and J. Barnes, “Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind,” 2015).
  • Every one of us consciously and unconsciously plots our lives by making ourselves significant characters in meaningful life stories (C. Johnson, “Metaphor vs. Conflation in the Acquisition of Polysemy: The Case of SEE,” 1999).
  • Reading a moving short story can significantly alter one’s experience of self, facilitating growth and maturation (M. Djikic et al, “On Being Moved by Art: How Reading Fiction Transforms the Self,” 2009).
  • Rather than providing mere entertainment, literary narratives can offer models of the social world, creating immersive simulations of social interactions and allowing participants to empathize with and understand others who are different (R. Mar and K. Oatley, “The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience,” 2008).
  • Storytelling elicits oxytocin, a hormone that helps us connect with strangers (P. Zack, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling,” 2013).
  • Arts-based interventions like storytelling and poetry recitation among elderly patients hospitalized for delirium resulted in lower delirium screening scores (M. Danila et al, “A Performing Arts Intervention Improves Cognitive Dysfunction in 50 Hospitalized Older Adults,” 2018).
  • Collecting the personal stories of terminal cancer patients lowered their depression and increased their sense of peace (M. Wise et al, “Suffering in Advanced Cancer: A Randomized Control Trial of a Narrative Intervention,” 2018). 
  • Knowledge of participants’ stories helps researchers interview more effectively (M. Andersen, and A. Ivarsson, “A Methodology of Loving Kindness: How Interpersonal Neurobiology, Compassion and Transference Can Inform Researcher–Participant Encounters and Storytelling,” 2015).
  • Merely reading action-related metaphors activates the motor area of the brain (V. Cuccio and S. Fontana, “Embodied Simulation and Metaphorical Gestures,” 2017).
  • Storytelling activates language processing areas (Broca’s and Wernicke’s) concurrently, thus involving more of the brain (P. Schroeder, “The Neuroscience of Storytelling Will Make You Rethink the Way You Create,” 2018).
  • Whereas listening to sentences containing literal and metaphorical actions (e.g., “the daughter grasped the flowers”) activated the left anterior inferior parietal lobule, an area involved with action planning, the metaphorical also activated a similar area in the right hemisphere. Hearing and understanding metaphoric action stimulates sensory-motor systems involved in action performance (R. Desai et al, “The Neural Career of Sensory-Motor Metaphors,” 2011).
  • How the brain maps a narrative seems to be similar to how it maps events in general (Y. Lerner et al, “Topographic Mapping of a Hierarchy of Temporal Receptive Windows Using a Narrated Story,” 2011). (Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage…”)
  • Whether telling or listening to a story, similar information processing areas of the brain operate regardless of the language being spoken (L. Silbert et al, “Coupled Neural Systems Underlie the Production and Comprehension of Naturalistic Narrative Speech,” 2014).
  • Reading stories can result in people feeling greater empathy for each other regardless of cultural origins and language and other differences. “One of the biggest mysteries of neuroscience is how we create meaning out of the world. Stories are deep-rooted in the core of our nature and help us create this meaning” (M. Dehghani et al, “Decoding the Neural Representation of Story Meanings Across Languages,” 2017).
  • When a storyteller’s brain showed activity in its insula (associated with emotionality), those of the listeners did too (G. Stephens et al, “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication,” 2010).
  • A group of 12 listening to a short story showed EEG activity correlated to that of the speaker, and in similar brain areas; also, the EEG pattern shows greater similarity among listeners attending to the same speaker than among listeners attending to different speakers (A. Kuhlen et al, “Content-specific Coordination of Listeners’ to Speakers’ EEG During Communication,” 2012).
  • Reading a novel can significantly increase resting-state connectivity in the left angular/supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri: hubs associated with perspective-taking and story comprehension; also, long-term changes show up in the bilateral somatosensory cortex. “The fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain” (G. Berns et al, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” 2013).
  • Emotional speech tends to increase brain synchronization (including limbic system, prefrontal, and orbitofrontal cortices) between listeners and storytellers; negative stories affect different brain areas than positive stories (L. Nummenmaa, et al, “Emotional Speech Synchronizes Brains Across Listeners and Engages Large-Scale Dynamic Brain Networks,” 2014).
  • Participants who viewed a short emotional video and showed elevated cardiac and electrodermal activity were likelier to donate their experimental earnings to a charity (B. Bracken et al, “Physiological Synchronization is Associated with Narrative Emotionality and Subsequent Behavioral Response,” 2014).
  • Narrative therapy exercises like writing personal stories can reduce cortisol levels and cardiovascular reactivity—both associated with anxiety—and improve coping with stress in high school students (D. Yeager et al, “How to Improve Adolescent Stress Responses: Insights From Integrating Implicit Theories of Personality and Biopsychosocial Models,” 2016).
  • Storytelling aids with how students integrate feeling and thought, subjective and objective, in how they make judgments about their world (B. Beatty, “Pursuing the Paradox: Emotion and Educational Leadership, 2000; also, J. Mulligan, “Activating Internal Processes in Experiential Learning,” 1993).
  • Even infants absorb and use story to create meaning (R. Dunbar, “Coevolution of Neocortical Size, Group Size, and Language in Humans,” 1993: one of a host of studies on this).
  • Stories can be easier for students to understand than expositions (F. Lehr and J. Osborn, “A Focus on Comprehension,” 2005; also B. Armbruster et al, “Does Text Structure / Summarization Instruction Facilitate Learning from Expository Text?” 1987; S. Trostle, “Effects of Storytelling versus Reading on British Primary Children’s Comprehension and Vocabulary Knowledge,” 1998; Texas Education Agency, “Comprehension Instruction: Texas Reading Initiative,” 2002; National Reading Panel, “Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read,” 2004).
  • Narrative is a prime instrument for all general learning (T. Greenhalgh and B. Hurwitz, “Narrative Based Medicine: Why Study Narrative?” 1999; S. Ragan and E. Wittenberg-Lyles, “Narrative Medicine and Education in Palliative Care,” 2005), including the transfer of tacit knowledge in organizational learning (D. Sole and D. Wilson, “Storytelling in Organization: The Power and Traps of Using Stories to Share Knowledge in Organizations,” 2004) and the power of narrative therapy (Mehl-Madrona’s review of research, in Coyote Wisdom: The Power of Story in Healing, 2005).
  • Information not framed as story suffers substantial memory loss (J. Mandler and N. Johnson, “Remembrance of Things Parsed: Story Structure and Recall,” 1977).
  • Healing stories create meaning in the context of struggle; “we cannot change ourselves until we change our stories” (S. Swatton, “The Experience of Healing Stories in the Life Narrative: A Grounded Theory,” 1999). Other studies obtained similar findings, including A. Babrow et al, “Narrative Problems and Problematizing Narratives: Linking Problematic Integration and Narrative Theory in Telling Stories about Our Health,” 2005).
  • Redemptive stories can promote psychological health, maturity, support, hope, determination, confidence, and perseverance (D. McAdam, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, 2006).

            Beyond the laboratory, storytelling in a multitude of formats and genres is changing relationships, work, education, medicine, psychology, presentation of scientific findings, social justice advocacy, even organizational community-building for the better (see L. Silverman, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Storytelling to Drive Results, 2006).

            Even the story of how to do science is changing, as qualitative research has demonstrated so effectively by emphasizing the importance of narrative and life experience. We get farther and understand more by doing research with people rather than on them. Without the context only their stories can provide, our data remain scanty and uninformative.

            Facts, theories, and reason alone do not stand a chance against a story because facts and reason ultimately depend on story for context and relevance and meaning—and, thus, for their power. Objective data always require interpretation and perspective in order to yield fact. Those require story (D. Taylor, The Healing Power of Stories).

Outliving Time and Death

            That story can enact so many marvelous capacities and contribute to such healing, education, and change makes sense. The deepest psychologies—and before them, philosophers, poets, and storytellers of every time and place—have insisted that personality itself looks more like narrative than machinery. No wonder we respond so deeply to a well-told tale.

            It is likely that gesturing preceded talking. If that is so, then story and performance predate language, even older than the brain circuits responsible for handling human language. Perhaps we began to speak and, later, to write so we could tell and imagine stories. They were here long before we lived in cities, and they often outlast us.

            We even story life in our dreams. Last night I dreamed:

            My father and I are standing together in a great river. He is as old as when he died some months back, but not sick or delirious. Fish brush our legs; marvelous boats whisk by.

            Knowing this to be one of the rare reflective moments we ever had together, I listen as he tells me about some prank he pulled in college.

            Remembering what my mother told me about him at that age, “I have this picture of you in college,” I reply, “of being very quiet, insecure, unhappy, very isolated; but perhaps that picture is unfair?”

            He wryly tells me he doesn’t like that picture. But he doesn’t dispute it. Then he falls silent.

            He is silent for so long, head turned away toward the water, that I realize he is weeping. Weeping for all the things he couldn’t tell me, for all the unlived life, the enjoyments he never got to have, the moments like this we never spent together. His tears fall into the river and flow onward. 

            Over many years of working with men’s groups, violent men just out of incarceration, psychotherapy clients, college and graduate students, community leaders, law enforcement personnel, social justice advocates, therapists, therapy supervisors, and academic colleagues, I have seen again and again how telling and listening to stories can uncover the diamond in the disaster, the redemption in the rupture, and by doing so allow the tale to flow forward. I wish my dad could have told more of his stories to me, to the rest of his family, to anyone. He would have lived differently, and therefore he would have died differently.

            Although his opportunity for that has passed, its passing is itself a story that continues. A version of it and any lesson it might bear lives on in everyone who reads about it and ponders this single personal example of a greater truth of being: that story transcends even the power of death to find new life in receptive hearts.

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