The Immense Power of Stories

I love a story. It can be a film or a book or an audio book. I just love them, a really good story and I’m lost in the plot, I’m transported a million miles (even light years away). And you know what? Everyone loves a story! It’s not simply that we recall how much we loved stories as children, stories are much, much deeper than that.

Imagine I’m going to tell you a story about my grandad. He was in the navy during the war. At one port in the Mediterranean, he missed his ship and had to stay on Sicily with little to do other than engage with the Italian locals (who were not on the side of the Allies). He had a great time!

Now, imagine that we’re also hooked up to electrodes that monitor our brain activity. First, the auditory centres of the brain will become activated, and then the magic starts, almost like a light switch being turned on. Our brain waves will become synchronised and scans will reveal that the blood flow to specific areas of the brain will be the same for all of us. What does this mean? 

Uri Hasson, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, has found that using functional MRI (fMRI) scans of volunteers’ brains as they listen to the same story shows the same parts of the brain to be activatedBefore the story, the volunteers had different activity in different regions of the brain. As they listened however, their brains became synchronised, what Professor Hassan calls ‘aligned’.

Imagine how powerful that is. Listening to a story, the listeners’ brain patterns become aligned with those of the story-teller. Stories are therefore super highways transferring ideas to others. This is how our hunter-gathering ancestors shared information, telling stories around a fire. A tradition that continued through the millennia. 

Humans tell stories all the time. We use them to communicate how we’re feeling, or thinking, or to entertain. Consider this, as you tell your story, your listener is recreating the events in their brain, having the same brain wave patterns as you. You have transferred a whole load of brain power to them!

As coaches and therapists, we use story-telling to help others through a challenging time. We construct the story in such a way that it traverses the barrier between the conscious and unconscious (subconscious) mind, much the same as hypnosis does. In fact, it’s the same as the suspension of disbelief you accept when watching a film. Once in the unconscious mind, this is where an association is made to their problem and, importantly, to its solution. 

I wonder if story-telling could be expanded to even greater problems. If it aligns everyone neurologically, could it be used to bring people together more? Can we conceive the change we might see if we could use stories to bring different parts of society together? The Brexiteers and the Remainers? Different races? Different religions? What a story that would be!

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