The science of stories – get ready, it’s not too boring!
Did you know that stories are good for our health?
Listening to them. Telling them. Stories bring actual health benefits. Yes, really!
First, listen to this: Once upon a time…what does that conjure up for you?
Well, scientists at Berkeley and elsewhere have explained that when we’re connected to stories, and characters within stories, the feel-good-chemical, Oxytocin, is released in our brains. We have a deeper sense of empathy as our ‘mirror neurons’ – brain cells – light up: we’re seeing other people in action, people we might connect with, people we root for, characters like Harry Potter or Han Solo out of Star Wars. And we empathise with them. With increased Oxytocin, (the so-called ‘feel-good chemical’) come health benefits.
Listen to this talk from Karen Eber, who used to be a top leader for General Electric. She’s highlighted how our brains respond to stories, and what happens neurologically when we do. The good news? When we listen to our stories, the lobes in our brain light up, like our frontal lobe, which strengthens our cognition, and our temporal lobe, which strengthens our senses and power of recognition.
‘Neural coupling’ means we light up as much as the storyteller does; this explains why we get so emotionally invested in a good story. We want the storyteller to provide us with more drama – more tension – and a damn great ending.
Valtonen summarises what many in this field have reported for a long time now, which is that there’s a large body of experimental evidence that shows writing about life experiences – telling our stories – can be beneficial for mental and indeed physical health.
Searching for good stories
If you browse Ted Talks, you’ll come across dozens of videos on the power of storytelling. In fact, add a filter to your search – ‘storytelling’ – and as of May 2021, you can locate 209 videos, the latest of which is Zahra Al-Mahdi’s ‘The Infinite Alchemy of Storytelling‘. These talks regularly attract tens of thousands of viewers. And that’s not to mention the unquantifiable number of videos that contain a ‘story-well-told’. One has to assume any effective Ted Talk functions as a ‘story-well-told’.
Take your pick: you could begin your search on Ted Talks by interrogating the intergenerational wisdom in indigenous stories.
Want to rewrite your story, so you’re no longer constrained by your past? Try listening to Andrew Peek’s take on how our ‘personal narrative’ can limit our future.
Preparing for an important interview? You’ll need to get your story straight – why you’re applying for the role, and what qualities you’ll bring. Or are you planning change as a leader and you need to get your colleagues to buy-in to the changes? You better have more than spreadsheets and numbers to hand.
Brené Brown hasn’t become a pop-psychologist because she happens to be intelligent and wise. She’s a superstar – interviewed by Oprah, no less – because she’s a storyteller. People feel she’s got something worth listening to. Check out her video on vulnerability, that key ingredient in storytelling.
Storytelling’s pretty damn important, when you think about it.
Ted Talks recognises this, so too do hundreds of millions of their viewers. Do you?
You’re a storyteller
Talk of stories can sound childish to some. What on earth is he banging on about stories for, they’re things we read kids when we put them to bed, I hear some people say.
I think that’s wrong. Yes, we do read bedtime stories, but my gosh, that’s not where the story ends.
I’ve written elsewhere about the ‘danger of the single story’, which presented as a talk, didn’t just attract tens of thousands of viewers, but 27 million viewers: Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerhouse. She’s a storyteller. And she doesn’t just rely on the written word. People come in their millions to hear the universal wisdom contained in her Ted Talk because – and again – I’m assuming here, they want to hear a ‘story-well-told.’
You don’t have to be a novelist to tell a tale or two. And while it’s a thing of wonder to hear stories told by our favourite authors, they’re not the only storytellers!
There’s many reasons we listen to stories, of course, and Ted Talks aren’t missing a trick when they add these as filters for people to search videos on their platform;
- We want a new perspective – stories can give us that
- We want a glimpse into the future
- We want insights into issues we feel matter
- We want a sense of hope
- We want to grow as a person and stories can act as a guide
- We look for a sense of mystery – an escape, even
- We want to be transported when times are hard
- We want to be reassured, consoled, to feel less lonely
- We want stories to connect us to our community or culture
- We want to feel connected to something bigger, deeper, richer than our individual story alone
- We want to see in other people’s stories how our own story compares – stories can act as a mirror and we want to see what gets reflected back at us
- Oh yes, sometimes we simply want to be entertained – to laugh, and to connect to the joy in life!
Ever looked at your reflection in a mirror and told yourself a story, for example that you need to lose weight, gain weight, take exercise, sleep more, leave, change, ———— do anything different, in fact. That’s you telling yourself a story.
Catching up with a loved one or friend on the phone? You’re telling each other stories.
But we don’t think of ourselves this way. We think storytellers have to be polished, witty, wise, and many things besides. Hogwash, I say! We’re all storytellers. And so too are you.
Finding your story
Each and everyone of us has a story, about our background, who we are today and where we want to head. But these stories become hidden over time. With the weight of adult responsibilities, we can bury our childhood hopes for our lives. We can conceal our truest wishes, as day-to-day, life takes over. Shit happens.
But when I was in the Royal Free hospital, recovering from my kidney operation in North London two years ago, I needed to search for my story. I was releasing painkillers into my body every five minutes: the pain stabbed at my sides. Sleepy, I thought to myself, ‘why am I here, why have I chosen to donate my kidney, and what comes next?’
At home recuperating, I felt I needed to connect again with who I really wanted to be. Work as a Manager had overwhelmed me. I had six weeks to before returning to the routine of the office. I’d just helped my Dad, arguably extending his life by risking my own health. I was thirty-seven and I realised, I want so much more from life. And to go forwards, I decided I needed to go backwards.
I wanted to understand my father – who he was as a child and who his parents were. I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted more information on their parents too, my great-grandparents. Who is this man I’d risked my health for, I asked myself. I said to myself, I want to know his story to understand part of my own life story.
Once I got going, the story started writing itself: who do I hope to be by Dad’s age – and if I intend to reach his age, how must I change? Because in May 2019, if one story revealed itself to me more than any other, it was that I needed to change. I started, not consciously I must add, crafting my own story. Might you have a story to craft?
Finding our story through our family’s story
Gifted letters that my Grandmother wrote spanning decades, in 2019 I worked with a long-lost cousin, Helen, who I’d traced through family tree research. I started piecing together my family story: that I come from a long lineage of Ashkenazi Jews, for one thing. I’ve blogged elsewhere about the joys of finding out more about my own story. I started to feel a sense of belonging and identity at a much deeper level than I’d ever experienced before.
But while there were – and still are – many great strengths I want to draw from that ancestral history, I felt some of my ancestors’ story was obscuring the individual story I wanted to tell.
The more I learnt about my paternal family, the more I realised they were shaped (unsurprisingly) by insecurities about late 19th and early 20th century anti-Semitism, and those twins: prejudice and shame. I started to notice how I’d inherited some of their characteristics and patterns of thought.
And through finding this story, I realised I had the tools to rewrite it. I decided that I’d spent too much of my life waiting for things to go wrong. I wanted to trust change could come, and that it didn’t have to be negative. I quit my job. I moved abroad. I started taking more risks in life. I trusted I could be loved, that I was worthy enough to be in a long-term relationship. I qualified as a coach. I started to change my story.
Genealogy itself doesn’t open the key to changing our stories, but family histories and research about our past can provide us with a sense of perspective about who we are, what we were like as children, and whether the lives we’re living are the ones we wanted, whether indeed changes could help us refit and reset what it is we want to do in later adulthood. There’s a wealth of information on how we might research our family history, and in a future blog I’ll be sharing resources.
Understanding our stories – revealing the inner meaning
Without getting all academic on you – I don’t have the brainpower, I’d need seven coffees – there’s been more interest in storytelling and ‘narratives’ in psychology and related sciences.
But what I have learnt so far is that while stories can be powerful, we can use that power to turn in on ourselves. As great as I think stories are, one has to admit that storytelling can be dangerous. Dictators use stories. Stories can be devices to manipulate people.
On a simpler, personal level, I know I’ve told myself stories that far from helping me, hindered me greatly as I grew up. I still cling to some of these stories today.
“My nose is so big, nobody will ever fancy me, let alone love me.”
“I may be doing okay now, but it’s all bound to fall apart.”
“I have to find a girlfriend by age eighteen, nobody can know I’m gay.”
“I can’t act too proud, I don’t want to be thought of as a show-off.”
What narrative therapy and – yes, storytelling coaching – can help with is that they can help us to deconstruct our stories.
We can try to look at the objective evidence of what’s going well in our lives. Narrative therapy and storytelling coaching can allow us to take a step back for a moment, consider how people who know us perceive us, and what might be valid about the story they’ve created about the kind of person we are. We can change perspective.
I know when I met my partner one of the things he liked most about me was my big nose! We weren’t changing the facts of the story. I do have a big nose. But my story about my nose was no more or less valid than his, or a thousand other people’s stories. The problem was that the story I’d been telling myself throughout my adolescence was so partial, so internalised, so corrosive. I hadn’t opened myself enough to others, to trust others: that their stories about me might matter too.
On a more profound level, I might seek to connect different things, some seemingly superficial, such as my self-hatred for my nose in adolescence, and one deeper, about the insecurities I may have inherited from my family, my community and my culture.
I could say, look, here’s some family research I’ve done, and understanding their story shows me that my paternal grandfather, and possibly his father too, were set back when as refugees had to settle in a new country where prejudice against immigrants was rife. And perhaps, not through any fault of their own, they’ve transmitted a set of characteristics – a guardedness, a concern about how they’ll be judged – that passed across the generations, ultimately affecting the story I tell about my appearance, my identity and my life.
In a blog coming soon, I will be highlighting the value of podcasts and emerging research on inherited and acquired characteristics, and how we can use insights from our family’s past to better understand our story and indeed rewrite it.
Returning to what’s universal about all our stories, Jerome Bruner, The Harvard psychologist, talked about how we have an innate capacity for storytelling – the ability to derive meaning from events – and elsewhere I’ve blogged on the theories that as a species we’re born with this in-built capacity. Storytelling can be conceived in this way as we conceive our human capacity to communicate through language.
How stories provide meaning in the most complex circumstances
I’ve come across those who say simple stories are to be avoided – that we must mistrust anyone telling a story that ultimately hinges on a tale of good versus bad, protagonists battling villains. There’s a lot I agree on here. Life is intrinsically messy and our individual lives can’t always be characterised as ‘journeys’ or a ‘quest’; a story with a Hollywood-ending.
But even in the most extraordinary events, in times of acute panic and stress – after trauma in fact – research shows that people do use narratives even when the stories they have to recount have nothing to do with how they intended or planned to live their lives.
The Wellcome Collection is a showcase for some of these, even stories that at first appear to offer nothing but life’s challenges: one sad event repeating earlier sad events.
Marina Lambrou, an academic, has looked at how survivors of terrorist attacks, or loved ones of people who have died, have used narratives to find whatever meaning they can from seemingly meaningless events.
Lambrou talked to a parent of a man, Todd, who died in the 9/11 attacks in New York. He said that whatever else happens in his life, he feels compelled to tell Todd’s story.
What I like about what Lambrou’s saying is that we don’t always need simple endings, and tales of redemption, to feel it’s okay to share our story. Sometimes life isn’t fair, it doesn’t appear to have any meaning. Discussing that is fine, too.
But more often than not, while the messiest events, and the most troubling life experiences, can appear lodged in our minds as one story – of complete and utter chaos, or terror, or trauma – with distance, our stories can be deconstructed. We can work out what dominant story has prevailed and whether there’s anything that contradicts that dominant narrative: we might wish to work with these details to find the tiniest glimpse of hope.
What else can storytelling coaching offer us?
Maria Lambrou states that storytelling can be central to coaching, but not just going back to the past. People are invited to “narrate” their major experiences in their life to date, and use that as a platform to set goals for the future.
We can consider the major life events we’ve experienced – the plot points if you like – be it good, or bad, and determine what’s valuable in our life stories to date, what we might want to build on, and what we damn well want to change. Metaphorically, and literally, we can turn over a new page as we begin to write a new chapter, which brings me to the power of writing our stories…
Sharing our story – writing it down – saying it out loud
There’s a tendency to think stories are trivial things. Entertainment, yes, but hardly up there with our income, our professional status, our health, our families, let alone our self-worth.
What we say to others – what we tell ourselves – about the important aspects of our lives will influence how we experience work, love, sex, and all the other major things that matter to us.
If we spend every moment of every living day telling ourselves we’re unlucky, or that we’re victims, or that we’ve been wronged. Or that the trauma we experienced in childhood will inevitably affect us for the rest of our lives, guess what – we’ll probably be proven correct. Our brains are powerful muscles, but we can rewire them.
Assuming that we try to find out more about our stories, and we try to understand their deeper meaning for our life, do we need to then share them? Isn’t that what narcissists do?
That’s two questions – and there’s two answers.
We don’t need to share them publicly, no.
And no, it’s not what narcissists do.
Melissa Febos, author of Girlhood and many of my favourite essays, states in Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma is a Subversive Act:
“It is not gauche to write about trauma. It is subversive. The stigma of victimhood is a timeworn tool of oppressive powers to gaslight the people they subjugate into believing that by naming their disempowerment they are being dramatic, whining, attention-grabbing, or beating a dead horse. Believe me, I wish this horse were dead.”
When I talk about sharing our stories, I am not referring here to any of the following: you giving a Ted Talk about your life to millions of people, you writing a book about your life, you writing a blog-post about your life, you even posting a Facebook update about your life. I am not necessarily talking about you sharing your life experiences (or ‘story’) with a loved one or doctor or counsellor, or indeed a coach (that’s me shooting myself in the foot, there!).
What I mean is – at the very least – sharing your story truthfully and openly to yourself. This might involve journaling, keeping a diary, not writing at all, in fact; but finding some other artistic or expressive means for sharing your story, through poetry, song lyrics, a rap, or a sketch. It could be you never *share* your story at all, not to somebody else. But you can share your story with yourself.
There’s a power in owning our past, what’s happened to us, getting a hold of it, breathing when we can’t access all the memories and the facts. There’s a strength to admitting it’s not entirely a story to our liking. There’s a value to reflecting to better work out where we want to head next.
I’m a writer of creative non-fiction and memoir and sometimes other forms of prose and poetry. None of this comes easily or naturally. I work at it. But my gosh, do I feel better when I write. My goodness, does it help me to breathe a little bit better even when I’m reflecting on the chaos and randomness and unfairness and uncertainties of life.
Writing can help.
Here’s the thing: You don’t have to write.
You don’t need to do very much at all.
But you might want to think about your story to date.
Reflect, and reset.
We’re all storytellers.
You might just not know it yet.