How storytelling is engaging minds and transforming lives

The most amazing thing happened this morning…”

Who can ignore a conversation that starts like this? Who can resist the promise of learning something new or surprising? Who doesn’t want a break from the daily grind for a little dramatic tension or challenge?

We all love a great story!

Stories aren’t just for Oscar-winning movies or best-selling novels. They’ve been at the heart of human communication from the beginning. Before Snapchat, email, or snail mail, our survival depended on remembering the stories told around the community fire.

And now, researchers are discovering that storytelling can be transformative for personal health.

What makes a story so powerful?

Sometimes, all we need are the facts. “Take this pill twice a day.” Or, “Stretch your hamstrings to ease lower back pain.”

But when it comes to a deeper kind of learning, the kind that changes behavior or gets us started in a new direction, we need something more engaging. We need characters, a plot, a challenge to overcome, and a resolution. We need something we can relate to.

Here’s why:

When we learn a fact, only the language processing areas of the brain are activated.1 And that’s important, but so much more happens to our brains when we learn through a story. Here’s just a sampling of what happens when we’re exposed to even the simplest of stories:

  • Both sides of our brain light up as we process words, interpret facts, and build memory.1
  • Motor and sensory neurons fire, which makes our brain feel like it’s actually experiencing the events we are hearing about.1
  • Our emotions are triggered, leaving us in a more receptive state for learning¾and more likely to act on what we’re learning.2

You can feel it: A frightening story makes your heart race. A sad story can bring you close to tears. These complex and integrated brain responses inspire deep connection, empathy with others, and memorable learnings.1

In practice, the results can be remarkable. Here are four examples of how researchers are applying storytelling to inspire positive actions and healthier habits:

A father-son struggle with cancer inspires generosity

A team at Claremont Graduate University wondered how different approaches to storytelling might affect people’s likelihood to donate to a charity. So, they shared a dramatic and moving film about a father and son struggling with cancer.3

Researchers then monitored changing levels of oxytocin­­ what scientists call the “love hormone” in each participant. Oxytocin spiked in almost all of the viewers. And, most of them donated a portion of their earnings from the experiment to nonprofits.

A separate research group watched a much simpler video of the father and son visiting a zoo with far less of the character, plot, conflict, and resolution of a good story. Viewers had no spike in oxytocin. And they donated far less of their earnings to charity. In fact, the researchers found that the more cortisol and oxytocin released, the more likely participants were to make charitable donations.

Stories of “people like me” help drive better blood pressure control

The setting: a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both groups of patients have difficulty controlling their blood pressure. One group of patients views a series of videos of similar patients sharing their own trials and successes. Another group of patients receives videos on more generic and less-personal topics like “dealing with stress.”

The results: The group exposed to the drama of personal stories had better blood pressure at the end of the study. In fact, the participants whose blood pressure was least controlled at the start achieved the strongest results. Access to personal stories helped them improve their numbers as effectively as adding more medications. 4

3. What happens when you explore your own story…

…from the privacy of your own room, pen and notebook in hand? That’s the thinking behind “expressive writing,” an approach to helping people process complex life experiences from adjusting to college to living with cancer.

  • In a classic study at the University of Texas, college students were asked to write for 15 minutes a day several days in a row about either an important personal issue or about superficial topics. Afterward, the students who wrote about personal issues had fewer illnesses and visits to the student health center.5
  • Kidney cancer patients who wrote about their deepest thoughts and emotions about living with cancer had reduced cancer-related symptoms, improved physical functioning and less fatigue than patients who wrote about neutral topics like their diet, exercise, and sleep habits.6
  • A group of nurses, social workers, and hospice volunteers wrote creative non-fiction stories about their challenging work caring for patients at the end of life. Participants found powerful support and were able to more effectively manage tough emotions after writing, reading, sharing, and discussing their narrated stories.7

Lights, camera, action: Multimedia adds power to a story

There’s telling a story, and then there’s creating it. Health researchers have begun studying “digital storytelling,” a process where people living with health challenges use video, music, images, and their own voices to create, share, and learn from their stories.8

Participants describe the process as powerful, deeply personal, and relevant. Most importantly, they find renewed motivation for problem-solving. The experience of managing the ups and downs of chronic conditions like diabetes come to life through their stories.9

Once you start “hearing” stories, their power becomes irresistible. How many have you heard already today? How many stories have you shared? Where could you solve a problem right now by passing along the right story at just the right moment?

Whether you’re a teller or a listener, there’s health-enhancing power in just the right story.

Sources:

1 Keene, K. Et al. The power of stories: Enriching program research and reporting. Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2016;Report #2016-32a.

2Sundin, A. et al. Rethinking communication: integrating storytelling for increased stakeholder engagement in environmental evidence synthesis. Environmental Evidence. 2018;7:6.

3Zak, P. How stories change the brain. Greater Good Magazine. Dec 17, 2013. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain. Accessed March 13, 2018.

4Thomas K. Houston, et al. Culturally appropriate storytelling to improve blood pressure: A randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2011;154:77–84.

5American Psychological Association. Open up! Writing about trauma reduces stress, aids immunity. https://www.apa.org/research/action/writing. Accessed March 26, 2019.

6Milbury, K et. al. Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for patients with renal cell carcinoma. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 32:663-670.

7Bruce, A, et al. Can writing and storytelling foster self-care? A Qualitative Inquiry into facilitated dinners. Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing 2018;20(6):554–560.

8Haigh, C. Tell me a story — a conceptual exploration of storytelling in healthcare education. Nurse Education Today. 2011;31:408–411.

9Njeru, N et al. Stories for change: development of a diabetes digital storytelling intervention for refugees and immigrants to Minnesota using qualitative methods. Public Health 2015;15:1311.

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