Our brain appreciates good storytelling. Storytelling is not just using words and actions to tell stories, but engaging and interacting with an audience and encouraging them to use their imagination.
No matter how old we are, a good story takes us to another dimension—beyond our present time and space—even though that world might only exist in the story.
Inside a bright and colorful classroom, enthusiastic preschoolers gathered for a morning circle time. Their teacher, Mrs. Kathy, picked up a classic children book, titled ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle.
Then, she animatedly read aloud, “In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on leaf. One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and—pop!—out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar!”
Meanwhile, the children shifted their facial expression as they had become curious. They had their eyes completely fixed on their teacher. From that moment on, the story transported the children to a whimsical new place. Together, they embarked in a journey of a little caterpillar becoming a beautiful butterfly.
Good storytelling can reduce negative emotions in children, such as stress (Brokington et al., 2021), and we'll dig more into this later.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Book on the Bookshelf. Photo used with permission |image credit: Shaun Kennedy/Gold Biotechnology.
Storytelling also gives us a sense of connection with others. In fact, listening to a story somehow causes the brain wave patterns of the listeners to start synchronizing with those of the storyteller (Stephens et al., 2010). When we listen to a story, the activity of our brain’s chemicals changes, and the parts of the brain involved in processing language and emotions become more active.
By influencing the emotions and building connections between the storyteller and the listeners, storytelling provides a critical adaptive role in human society (Brokington et al., 2021). It helps people navigate their difficult social situations throughout human evolution.
Although there is no clear evidence for it, the art of telling stories is probably as ancient as the development of language in human.
Tale as old as time
Historically, the exact time of when storytelling began is hard to speculate, but there are some indications worldwide that people have long used it to communicate with each other.
Certainly, the rock art or cave paintings in Africa, Europe, and Asia dated approximately 30,000 years ago are considered the earliest evidence of ancient visual storytelling. Back then, cave dwellers used pigment to draw animals on the cave wall to tell stories about survival and life.
Whereas old traditions of oral storytelling, or telling a story through voices and gestures (by use of poems, rhymes, chants, and songs), have been passed down from one generation to another in many different parts of the world in order to transfer knowledge, ideas, art, and cultures. As continuous oral tradition, approximately 300 generations of Indigenous Australian faithfully passed a story about dramatic sea level rises across Australia, dating back more than 7,000 years (Nunn & Reid, 2015).
Many good old fairy tales even have transcended time and place due to its effective storytelling. As an example, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a fairy tale written in 1740 in France, but the story is still very popular all around the world.
To make a lasting impact, an effective story typically immerses the listeners completely into the story. In other words, it makes us feel as if we are the main character and experience the journey.
How does effective storytelling affect our brain chemistry?
According to Dr. Paul Zak, a professor from Center of Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, effective storytelling not only transports us into the story, but also it affects our brain activity (Zak, 2015). Listening to an effective story makes us pay attention. It evokes our emotions, causing the release of oxytocin in our brain. And most importantly, it can move us into action.
Oxytocin is a hormone associated with many social behaviors, including care, empathy, trust, and bonding. During the process of storytelling, character-driven stories increase the production of oxytocin.
Watch a video below about how storytelling affects our emotions and behavior:
Remarkably, the amount of oxytocin released in the brain during this process also correlates with how much they are willing to cooperate afterwards. As social beings, we depend on each other when things become more difficult. Apparently, during storytelling, oxytocin sends a signal in our brain that it’s safe to trust and rely on the other person.
Oxytocin is not the only hormone that changes its activity during storytelling. Based on a study of hospitalized children in Brazil, effective storytelling affects not only the levels of oxytocin, but also the levels of cortisol, which is associated with distress (Brokington et al., 2021).
Storytelling helps children during their hospital stays
In the pediatric Intensive Care Units, children commonly experience stressful situations due to their illness, treatments, and sudden removal from their social connections. In addition, they can also experience lingering trauma from their hospital stays, particularly when recalling their memories, treatment, and pain.
A team of researchers led by Guilherme Brockington, Ph.D., from the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) and Jorge Moll, MD, Ph.D. from D'Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR), believed that storytelling as an intervention could reduce negative emotions in hospitalized children. In this case, storytelling provides the social connection that the children miss and an imaginary getaway place that is far away from the somber hospital room.
To conduct this study, the researchers randomly assigned hospitalized children into one of two groups: story or riddle, then recruited experienced storytellers to either read stories or play a riddle game to the children for 25 or 30 minutes (Brokington et al., 2021). Before and after the intervention, they collected a saliva sample and assessed the pain level from the children. They measured the levels of oxytocin by using ELISA kits and the levels of cortisol by using an Enzyme Immunoassay.
The researchers found that both interventions increased the levels of oxytocin in hospitalized children (Brokington et al., 2021). However, the storytelling group had higher increase in oxytocin levels by two-fold than the levels of the children in the riddle group.
After the intervention, the cortisol levels for both groups reduced (Brokington et al., 2021). Nonetheless, the cortisol levels in storytelling group was significantly much lower than the levels of the riddle group. In addition, the pain scores in the storytelling group decreased as well.
On another positive note, the children in the storytelling group mentioned words that were more positive about the nurse and the doctor (Brokington et al., 2021). For example, they explained that a nurse was a person who helped them get well and a doctor was a person who took care of them.
Whereas, in the riddle group, the children were more likely to say, “Nurse—a crabby lady who gives me a nasty-tasting medicine”; “Doctor—a cruel person who pokes me with a needle”; and “Hospital—a bad place where I go when I’m very sick.’
Therefore, the researchers concluded that storytelling could be used as a low-cost and highly safe intervention for hospitalized children to help them cope with stressful situations.
To sum up, good storytelling is an easy and powerful way to communicate and connect with others by transporting us to the world of other people. In addition, it can lift up our emotions and change our perspective. Therefore, sometimes we just need to listen to a good inspiring story to make our day a better one.
Brockington, G., Moreira, A. P. G., Buso, M. S., Silva, S. G. da, Altszyler, E., Fischer, R., & Moll, J. (2021). Storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalized children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(22). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2018409118.
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