This Is Your Brain on Stories

I’ve offered a lot of traditional stories on Lion’s Whiskers over the last several months. How many of you are telling them to your kids? Maybe not a lot of you, and that’s okay! But I hope you have gathered something from these stories. What I hope you have picked up on is this: around the world, in every culture, people have been telling stories not simply for entertainment, but for creating metaphors for understanding their world. I also hope I can persuade you that some form of storytelling – whether with traditional narratives or your own “When I was a kid” yarns – can be a powerful parenting tool, and may help your kids to develop the six types of courage.

I’ve shared a lot of my own anecdotal observations about the power of storytelling, and posted lots of inspiring quotations about the role of stories in our lives. What’s fascinating and exciting is that cutting-edge brain science is beginning to back up the wisdom of the ages. Researchers from many disciplines are using fMRI brain scanning to investigate what actually happens in our brains when we listen to stories. The fields of advertising and journalism have always known how to harness the power of stories; but that power is now part of medical education and law schools, in tax compliance and political discourse, as part of proposed Alzheimer’s treatments, and part of the on-going discussion concerning whether an understanding of narrative can help explain wartime behaviors. Even the defense department is studying whether narrative approaches can help create military leaders with more moral courage.
I want to very briefly (as a layperson, children’s author, and researcher on the importance of story-telling in our culture) summarize some of the findings.
  •        Humans are hardwired for narrative. Evidence is mounting that we are natural storytellers, not by training or by culture, but by biology. The creation of metaphors for understanding our experience is automatic, which helps explain why being presented with facts is often insufficient for decision-making. When we create metaphors for information and experience, they fit more readily into a narrative frame and allow us to imagine how the story might end. Researchers such as Paul Bloom at Yale University’s Mind and Development Lab study babies to figure out how the imagination makes information processing possible, and use puppet plays (stories) to study babies’ moral judgement. “Story,” writes brain scientist Mark Turner, “is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories.”

  • . Oxytocin is released by stories. Oxytocin, the hormone associated with love and attachment, can be triggered by listening to stories. Oxytocin receptors are located in the pleasure centers of the brain; those stimuli that trigger the release of oxytocin (snuggling, for example) are the ones we seek rather than avoid. This tells us that listening to stories is an adaptation for survival. Oxytocin has also been linked to trust, empathy and moral behavior, and may thus be relevant for creating stable societies.
To an avid reader or storyteller, it’s stating the obvious to say that when we are immersed in a story, we feel excitement when the character feels excitement, grief when the character feels grief. We have all experienced the emotions of the characters we love, especially those with whom we empathize. But not only that, the areas of the brain that register motion are also stimulated when characters in story experience motion. When we say we are moved by a story, this is true in more ways than one. The brain lights up as if the listener (or reader) is actually in the story, fighting dragons and falling in love.
So how is this related to courage development in our children? Dr. Lisa has discussed oxytocin’s role in promoting attachment which contributes significantly to courage development and resiliency in children. If storytelling, too, triggers oxytocin release, then we can speculate  that storytelling also has a role in both deepening the connection in secure attachment relationships and inspiring courage and moral development in our children. On top of that, we have the connection between fear and uncertainty: because storytelling is a human adaptation for interpreting and making sense of experience, it may help reduce uncertainty, and by extension, reduce fear. Stories offer us the opportunity for mental, imaginative, neurobiological rehearsal of experiences we may encounter in the future. Just as champion athletes use visualization techniques to ready themselves for the contest to come (a form of storytelling), we can use stories to prepare ourselves and our children for the challenges of the future. 
Whether you retell the traditional stories I’ve offered on this blog, pick a book from my bookshelf to read your child, or you like sharing family stories and taking turns narrating your day’s events at dinnertime, stories are powerful, free and abundant. They are what make us human and inspire us all to have courage in life. As the Native American saying goes, “Take courage from the story.”

One thought on “This Is Your Brain on Stories

  1. Alexandra Siy

    Thank you for posting this story-science connection! Indeed, Leo and I are loving the stories on Lion's Whiskers. Thank you!

  2. Jennifer Armstrong

    Hi Alex!Thanks so much for your feedback.It's so good to know you're sharing the stories!

    Best wishes,

  3. Sarah Towle

    Awesome post, Jennifer! And proof that the story can never be jeopardized by the digital revolution. Love live the story!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *