©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD
We’re all stories, in the end. —Steven Moffat
“My students are always begging ‘Tell us a story,’ to say nothing of my own children who harp on the same string.” Carmen sighed. “As a teacher, I want to teach facts and just the facts! What’s the big deal with stories?”
“Let me share my perception of a story’s importance,” I responded. And once I started, I was on a roll!
“In a word? The brain—at almost any age, in every culture and in every era—loves stories. In fact, the brain is designed to process them. Tiny organs within the emotional layer of the brain are highly attuned to symbolic meanings that come to it through story and metaphor, to say nothing of the brain’s right hemisphere.
“Stories have been told since the dawn of time—not that I was there in every era to hear them myself. Around the campfire. When children were tucked into bed. Stories have been told at times of celebration and ritual, when people were frightened or insecure. Stories: to reminisce, to share personal experiences, to impart gems of wisdom, to entertain, for protection, to treasure generational inheritance, to maintain oral tradition, and to increase bonding between family members and friends.
“All the great philosophers, prophets, poets, writers, musicians, and visionaries have been quintessential storytellers. Remnants of their craft exist today, often in the form of allegories, metaphors, operas, fairy tales, and myths. Think of the new movie Into the Woods. Even country ‘n western songs are musical stories.”
“Interesting,” said Carmen. “My parents loved opera. I was named after an opera, but growing up I thought of opera as music, not as stories. In our family we didn’t read or tell stories, per se.”
“A good story easily enters your memory and may still be there decades later. Those who ignore the importance of story and metaphor do so at their own peril. Stories form the basic fabric for intelligence because they impact how you think and behave. They can help you make sense of the world, relax, reduce stress, and heal. They can give life to past experiences, present situations, and even to a hoped-for future. In fact, you often dream in story format.”
Carmen looked puzzled. “Hmm,” she said, reflectively. “I have no role model for using stories in my teaching. Do you?”
I thought a moment. “The three teachers that made the most indelible positive impression on me all used stories. Sometimes they’d read a story and then we’d discuss it, identifying the lessons that could be drawn. Sometimes they’d tell a short anecdote that went along with the topic under study. I don’t always remember the topic, but I usually can recall the illustration. Often we were asked to write a story and then sometimes share it with class. I still have a few of mine. And if you’re a student of Scripture you’ll recall that it’s filled with stories.”
“Come to think of it, I do recall a few ‘parables’ I learned in Sunday school,” said the teacher. “And city walls falling down. I never thought about it being basically a collection of stories.”
“Think of the Big Picture. Life is a three-dimensional story that you live. Your story differs from anyone else’s on this planet. Because of that, you always have something to share, just as you always have something to learn. Within your life story are myriad short stories that reflect what you did, where you went, what you saw, who you spent time with (or chose not to for a reason), what you accomplished, what mistakes you made, what lessons you learned (or didn’t learn), and what contributions you made on your life journey.”
“My father was an engineer; my mother, a college professor,” said Carmen. “We read ‘information’ and talked about ‘facts and ideas.’ I remember my grandmother reading me a fairy tale—once. My parents told her to read to me, by all means, but only educational stuff. I think my brain must have decided right then and there that stories were not educational.”
“Oh, my!” I exclaimed. “Stories can reach and educate both heart and mind. They can stimulate active mental picturing--as compared with passive picturing that is honed through viewing television and videos. Stories can develop your imagination, an ability that is utilized in a wide range of intellectual activities and required for all types of problem solving. They can offer you a way to look at something from a more objective perspective, especially when a sensitive or problematic area needs to be addressed.”
“I like writing,” said the teacher,” but I’ve always written about ideas. Never stories. I’m known as ‘Miss Information.’ Just today I was using a science handout. You know, knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. One of my students read it and said, ‘There’s no story to it. It’s so boring.’ I suppose you’ll tell me that if I included a little story about someone who used science or some unusual anecdote about science that my students would like it better.”
“They’d probably enjoy it more and likely recall it better, too. Start writing and telling stories—about ideas. You can build a story around almost any idea: a real happening, something you would like to have happen, or something that might possibly happen, a current news item. Use your imagination.”
The teacher nodded. “That will be a learning experience for me, that’s for sure.”
“Recently the online journal PLoS One reported MRI research portions of the brain that are activated by stories. Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, led by Leila Wehbe, watched as the words from Chapter 9 of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” were flashed for half a second onto a screen inside the MRI Scanner. Wehbe wanted to study what happens in the brain while people are reading a story (versus just looking at words or phrases). Chapter 9 was selected because, according to Wehbe, although it contains action and emotion there’s not too much going on for scientists to track.”
I summarized some of the findings:
- Reading about the characters’ movements triggered activity in the same brain region you use to perceive the movements of others in real life
- The portion of the brain that processes the point of view of the characters in the story is the same area you use to perceive intentions behind the actions of real people
- The brain area used to visually interpret the emotions of others was also used to decipher the emotions of the characters in the story
- The neural activity of the brain was able to track the history of the story as it unfolded even as it deciphered the last few words read
“I had no idea that reading a story—and I assume hearing a story read, as well—activates the same portions of the brain used when processing life as we observe and interact with others. I appreciate you taking time to share this with me. With my brain, actually.” Her laugh was infectious.
“Stories have been found to play a special role in the development of memory, attention, and reflective thought patterns. They can foster a love for words and a facility with language and bring ideas to life. They can instill character, enhance education, and convey information without seeming to do so. They can also arouse emotion, which is key for learning. Do both your brain and your students’ brains a favor; start including stories in your education toolbox.”
“I am going to do that,” Carmen said, smiling. “Will my students ever be surprised when I begin the first class of next semester with a story. I can just imagine their nerve endings sizzling with shock!”
And they’ll love it, I thought. As Rudyard Kipling once said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Probably would also work for science!
In the advent of 20th-century technology and beyond, storytelling—the pure unadulterated sharing of stories with another for the sheer joy of the telling and the listening—sometimes gets left behind in the plethora of sound, sight, and sensation. But the art of storytelling is not lost. It still exists, just waiting for you to take it from the mental shelf of your mind, dust it off, hone it, and access its elegant power to connect and resonate with the human spirit.
Stories are powerful. Read them. Write them. Ponder them. Learn from them. Play and have fun with them. Allow your brain to luxuriate in them. Share them with others. Soak up the benefits they can provide. Make them part and parcel of your life story in your very own way.
Perhaps there is no greater legacy than that of knowing how to tell—and enjoy—a good story. Start now and live happily ever after....