Stories Really Do Have The Power To Change Your Mind—And Brain

"Once upon a time..." were the golden words I longed to listen to as a child—from my granny, from my mummy, form my teachers. Today, after so many years, I see the same eagerness in my kids at home and at school, whether they are in kindergarten or class ten or even adult trainees. All of them are rapt with attention when they hear, "Today I am going to tellyou a story!"

Vivid descriptions activate our brain cells, resulting in sharpened cognitive processes of attention, memory and even problem solving.

I have realised that the ability to spin a yarn can have a magical effect on just about everyone. In fact, a story has been rightly referred to being a Trojan horse—a vehicle of the message.

So, what is it that makes listening to a story so compelling?

Why are we attracted to stories? It doesn't matter if they are in the form of books, movies or even personal experiences. There's research that indicates that personal stories and gossip make up about 65% of our conversations!

Stories give the brain a workout

There are proven intersections between neuroscience, biology and stories. A well-told story illuminates numerous areas of the brain, resulting in a more enriched cognitive and emotional experience.

For example, when we are listening to a lecture we process the facts only in two areas of the brain, namely the Broca's area responsible for language comprehension and Wernicke's area, responsible for producing sounds. However, when these same facts are woven into an intricate narrative, elaborate processes involving many areas transpire in the brain.

Descriptive language = more neural connections

Research has categorically shown that the more descriptive the text, the more elaborate the brain cell activation. For example metaphors such as "she has a velvet voice" roused more sensory areas in the brain than phrases that had the same meaning but used less descriptive language, for example, "she sings well." When metaphors invoke touch, smell, sound etc, they stimulate the centres of the brain associated with these sensations.

Stimulated and simulated

Stories run on the human mind much like a simulation runs on the computer. You experience and perceive a new reality. This helps the reader to get a practical insight into solutions to real difficulties.

Story reading or storytelling?

That stories enhance brain development in children is a well-known fact. But is story telling or reading more beneficial? In one study, the effects of storytelling and story reading on kids of kindergarten to grade two were compared. Half the students were read stories aloud, the other half was told the same stories by a storyteller. Improved recall was found in both groups, but the set that was told the story performed better on memory and application of knowledge. Conclusion: tell stories for better memory and better life skills.

Chemical reactions

And finally the third point I want to make here is that stories can be used to alter brain chemistry, and consequently our emotions! In groundbreaking research, Paul Zak used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and blood tests to see what was going on inside the brains of people who watched a simple short film. One group of participants watched a film about a father wondering how to deal with his son's cancer diagnosis. Another group watched a different short film, one where another father and son take an uneventful walk through a zoo.

A good story releases both cortisol and oxytocin. Without cortisol, we don't pay attention, and without oxytocin, we don't fall in love with the characters!

Based on the brain chemical releases, the researcher was able to predict whether the participants would feel more emotional and empathetic and donate money to charity. Results indicated that the group which watched the cancer film had increased cortisol and oxytocin levels and donated to a cancer charity. The control group that watched a zoo walk film neither had high levels of brain chemicals nor did they donate to charity.

What does all of this indicate?

The cancer story actually had the power to release chemicals, which in turn made the participants more attentive, empathetic and prone to donating money to charity!

The power of a narrative comes from its ability to release two neurochemicals: cortisol and oxytocin. Cortisol is a stress chemical that keeps the attention focused on whatever is causing the stress, whether real or imaginary. Watchers of the cancer short film had increased cortisol, while watchers of the zoo film did not. Oxytocin is popularly known as the happy hormone. In Zak's study, watchers of the cancer film experienced increased oxytocin levels— so much so, that they donated half their earnings from the study to a cancer charity. Watchers of the zoo film did not.

So a good story releases both cortisol and oxytocin. Without cortisol, we don't pay attention, and without oxytocin, we don't fall in love with the characters!

To conclude, the research on the effects of stories on our brain tells us that vivid descriptions while narrating stories activate our brain cells, resulting in sharpened cognitive processes of attention, memory and even problem solving. Further to this, a good storyteller can even alter the chemistry of our gray matter to change our feelings and behaviour.


So what are the implications for us as parents, teachers and shapers of the next generation?

I believe it's not only imperative to tell stories to our kids, but also to hone their storytelling skills. It's going to be the skill of 21 century. The era of status updates, PowerPoint presentations, bar graphs and pie charts is slowly fading out to give way to good story telling. Sure, we need data, facts, and figures to make decisions, but stories enhance presentation and retention of these. After all, stories can inspire, motivate, surprise and even spread and sell ideas, data, and products. Hence those who can find, share, create and tell good stories will rule the world!