Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Stories can change our brains - Hilary Hawkes

Last week, March 20th, was World Storytelling Day. That's my kind of day!

I can't imagine a world without stories, can you?

Stories and storytelling have been around since the  beginning of human time. Think of our early ancestors huddled together in caves or shelters listening to the  wise and entertaining stories handed down from one generation to the next.  They were our way of conveying important  information and messages, entertaining, educating, and helped us create bonds with each other too.

We might not very often sit together with storytellers anymore, but a good story remains at the heart of some of the best forms of entertainment to this day – even though the means through which we access the story may have changed.

As a bookaholic and author it all makes perfect sense to me that there is something about stories that attracts us and draws us in.  Stories help us connect with something deep within ourselves and others. They tap into the core of our being. In stories we find meanings, purposes, identities, connections with strangers,  insights and understanding about life, ourselves and the lives and motivation of other people.

Sometimes we absorb all that whilst being entertained.  Other times we might come away from a book or story feeling a kind of warm, connected understanding with the characters and with what the author was telling us. This is the power and importance of stories – they are part of what makes us civilized, aware and caring.

Real life stories told in emotive ways cause (perhaps obviously) strong reactions in us too. When stories are more emotive our brains release more oxytocin and this makes us more compassionate.

Expert Paul Zak's research uncovered how stories shape our brains, tie strangers together, and move us to be more empathetic and generous. 
His team used brain scans to show how the story of a child’s life with cancer changed patterns in subjects' brains in what he calls an empathy, neurochemistry and dramatic arc. Participants watched two videos about the child and his father. In the first the child’s struggle with his illness and his and his family’s courage were highlighted. In the second, the illness was not the main focus. Zak’s conclusion, when those who watched the first version gave generously to a cancer charity, and those who watched the second did not, was that the greater the release of ocytocin (or, as he called it, the 'moral molecule') the greater the empathy and ensuing generosity.

You can read more about Paul Zak’s work here 

When it comes to sharing stories with children there is another part to their power. Sitting quietly and cosily with your child or a group of children creates an important bond between parent/adult and child. Research shows children benefit in so many ways when they read or are read to – from developing language, communication and social skills to aiding the growth of knowledge and expanding ideas.  Stories can be a fun and natural way to teach quiet nurturing messages that we want all our children to absorb, and which will help them develop strong emotional health, thoughts and habits for life. The right story at the right time can be remembered for life!

Is there a book or story, fiction or non-fiction, that had an influential or powerful effect on you or your life?


Louise Milton said...

Words can have powerful effects, yes.

Louise Milton said...

Meant to add that you might find this interesting too, Hilary, article on the science, psychology behind storytelling. Hope the link works:

Hilary Hawkes said...

Thank you for that.