Back in the fall of 1999, Norman Conard, a history teacher at the Uniontown High School in Kansas, asked his students to come up with a project for National History Day. While brainstorming ideas, ninth-grader Elizabeth Cambers stumbled on an old clipping from US News and World Report. The story included the line, ‘Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43.’
Elizabeth asked her fellow ninth-grader Megan Stewart to help her with her project, and during her free time, Megan pored over the story of Irena Sendler. She learned about how this unassuming young Polish nurse had created thousands of false identity papers to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto. To sneak the children past Nazi guards, Sendler hid them under piles of potatoes and loaded them into gunny sacks. She also wrote out lists of the children’s names and buried them in jars, intending to dig them up again after the war so she could tell them their real identities.
Imagining herself in the young nurse’s position, Megan could appreciate just how difficult her life-threatening choices must have been. She was so moved by Sendler’s gumption and selflessness that she, Elizabeth, and two other friends wrote a play about Sendler. They called it Life in a Jar and performed it at schools and theatres. As word got out, the students’ quest to share what Sendler had done appeared on CNN, NPR, and the Today Show. The power of Sendler’s story had turned the project into something much bigger than the girls expected.
Today, Megan Stewart – now Megan Felt – is programme director for the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, a non-profit organisation that teaches students about the lives of past luminaries such as Sendler. ‘I continue to be inspired by Irena Sendler daily,’ says Felt, who still marvels at the way a single story cracked her own life wide open, completely altering its course. ‘We want young people to be inspired by the stories they hear and realise that they also can change the world.’
The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act. As the late US poet laureate Stanley Kunitz put it in ‘The Layers’, ‘I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was.’
Our storytelling ability, a uniquely human trait, has been with us nearly as long as we’ve been able to speak. Whether it evolved for a particular purpose or was simply an outgrowth of our explosion in cognitive development, story is an inextricable part of our DNA. Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.
One of the earliest narratives to wield such influence was the Old Testament, written down starting in the seventh century BCE and then revised over the course of hundreds of years. When we think of this first section of the Bible, we tend to recall its long sequences of ‘thou shalt nots’, but many of the most gripping Old Testament stories do not contain an overtly stated moral.
While the Old Testament certainly reflected the values and priorities of the culture from which it emerged, those values came embedded in powerful tales that invited readers and listeners to draw their own conclusions. When Eve ate the fruit from the Garden of Eden’s tree of knowledge, bringing God’s punishment upon herself and Adam, the image powerfully illustrated the fate that may await anyone who ignores a divine order.
Noah, who carried out God’s cryptic command to build an ark, survived the great deluge that followed – and personified the rewards in store for one willing to conform to God’s will. It was no coincidence that, steeped in stories like these, the ancient Hebrews emerged as a unified society of people devoted to God and his commands.
The Homeric emphasis on conquering cities by trickery is mirrored in later Greek battle strategy
Meanwhile, in ancient Greece, a formidable oral storytelling tradition was taking hold – one in which epic stories such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were passed from generation to generation, each storyteller adding tweaks as he saw fit. Though the characters in these epics were larger-than-life figures, often possessed of superhuman abilities, it was still natural for people to identify with them. Epic heroes rarely conquered their foes with ease. Like Homer’s Odysseus, who endured a painful and protracted journey to return to his homeland, they faced hardship head-on and persevered against great odds.
One reason the epics had such staying power was that they instilled values like grit, sacrifice, and selflessness, especially when young people were exposed to them as a matter of course. ‘The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text, not just because it was old and reverenced, but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life; a way of thinking under stress,’ wrote William Harris, the late classics professor emeritus at Middlebury College, Vermont. ‘They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character, but only if it were read carefully, over and over again.’
In their quest to lead a good life, generations of Greeks looked to the epics for inspiration, giving rise to ancient hero cults that worshipped the exploits of characters like Achilles and Odysseus. The historian J E Lendon points out that the Homeric emphasis on conquering cities by trickery is mirrored in later Greek battle strategy, underscoring the tales’ impact not just on minds, but on cultural norms and behaviours.
For thousands of years, we’ve known intuitively that stories alter our thinking and, in turn, the way we engage with the world. But only recently has research begun to shed light on how this transformation takes place from inside. Using modern technology like functional MRI (fMRI) scanning, scientists are tackling age-old questions: What kind of effect do powerful narratives really have on our brains? And how might a story-inspired perspective translate into behavioural change?
Our mental response to story begins, as many learning processes do, with mimicry. In a 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, the psychologist Uri Hasson and his Princeton University colleagues had a graduate student tell an unrehearsed story while her brain was being scanned in an fMRI machine. Then they scanned the brains of 11 volunteers listening to a recording of the story.
As the researchers analysed the data, they found some striking similarities. Just when the speaker’s brain lit up in the area of the insula – a region that governs empathy and moral sensibilities – the listeners’ insulae lit up, too. Listeners and speakers also showed parallel activation of the temporoparietal junction, which helps us imagine other people’s thoughts and emotions. In certain essential ways, then, stories help our brains map that of the storyteller.
Read More: Here