The Mental Powers of Storytelling

September 14, 2019

The Story Inside Us

A story is a sequence of events that lead to a conclusion. It’s typically driven by some kind of conflict or some unattainable desire. Details give life to the characters, and their experiences give us insight.

Storytelling has always been mankind’s primary teaching tool, but the form itself may facilitate learning. Once we get into a story, we’re pulled along by the promise of hearing how it will end. This gravitational force makes a story an ideal vehicle for us to conceptualize and retain information. We can handle a bland list of bullet points, if necessary, but we would much rather hear about a character on a quest.

Modern researchers believe it’s because our brains are hardwired for narrative. Brain imaging studies have shown that specific parts of our brain only become active when we’re listening to stories. Storytelling has also been shown to trigger the release of oxytocin, a neurochemical that enhances our sense of empathy.

Sacre believes that what makes stories such an effective method for transmitting information is because we identify with the characters’ struggles. We’re not just passively listening; part of us gets to live the story being told. The tale may contain fictitious people from fantastic worlds doing impossible things, but once we fall under the story’s spell, we become a part of that world.

“We get to see ourselves in these stories, and that’s really complicated brain work,” Sacre said. “We get to be the lion and the person being chased.”

This is why many old stories still endure: because they speak to the same dramas that still dwell inside of us. Sacre says he’s been rediscovering some of the lesser-known fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson canons. The kids love them, and will often request that he tell more “magic stories.”

“These stories are dealing with very elemental issues and concerns that we all have,” Sacre said. “We all get lost. We’re all afraid of not being loved. We’re all afraid of death, and the unknown.”

Movie in Your Mind

Stories have been told long before the written word. It’s a practice as old as humanity itself.

Every culture throughout time has been built upon a framework of key stories that describe its origins, provide codes of conduct, and supply a sense of right and wrong.

Today, our appetite for stories is stronger than ever. We still tell ancient tales, and new narratives are constantly being spun for our enjoyment.

However, these days we consume most of our stories through a visual medium: videos, television, and movies. Sacre doesn’t disparage these formats, but he says they lack something that only a story told with words can deliver.

For example, when kids hear about a ferocious lion running through the forest, they all see different scenes in their mind. One child might picture palm trees and a yellow lion with a brown mane. Another may see a tan lion with an orange mane charging through the evergreens.

Each child creates his or her own movie as they’re listening to a tale, weaving their own sensibility in between the spaces of the words.

A movie, by contrast, provides a more homogenous and passive experience and does much less to challenge our minds.

“The brain is super-active when you’re listening to a story. But if we go see the Lion King, we’re all going to see the exact same lion,” Sacre said. “We’ll all see the same scenes, hear the same music and the same famous actors reading the parts. It makes us forget our own stories.”

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