By Hannah Sleight
Have you ever read a novel that engulfed you with its charm? Perhaps you watched a movie that captured your imagination and you dreamt of being Han Solo for months afterward. Or maybe, a vivacious three-year-old begged you to read her favorite book and sat quietly in rapt attention as Pooh Bear came alive!
Novels, movies, and children’s books are all great examples of storytelling, but they only scratch the surface of the craft. Humans have told stories since the invention of language. For thousands of years, knowledge was handed down from generation to generation through oral and then written traditions. Stories provided a valuable map of the world. From the African fables and Chinese folklore to Nordic fairy tales and Greek mythology, storytelling is ubiquitous across cultures and time.
Is it little wonder then to find our brains are wired for stories? The truth is there are biological reasons we enjoy a good yarn. A winsome account gives your brain a lovely cocktail of hormones – dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. Dopamine is produced as a story builds anticipation. The benefits of dopamine include focus, motivation, and memory. When we relate and empathize with characters in a story, the hormone oxytocin is released. With a dose of oxytocin, we feel more generous, trusting, and amiable. If a story is lively or funny, endorphins are released, making us feel happy and creative. On the other hand, stressful stories release cortisol and adrenaline – triggers for the flight-or-fight reaction. As we take in a story, our brains respond with a blend of hormones.
In addition to this hormone-high, stories activate various parts of our brain. When our brains are only processing words, the language region is activated. However, according to psychologiests, when we listen to a story, other regions of our brain also fire like we are experiencing the events in the narrative. For example, if a character sucks in breaths of dusty air after sprinting across the rutted field, our sensory and motor cortices light up. A story allows us to simulate an experience on a neurological level without actually living it. What a dynamic way to share perspectives and ideas!
A narrative helps us understand others and ourselves. Whether it is historical or fiction, a good story can build empathy, awareness, and knowledge. One person can start worldwide change! The story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin aroused sympathy for enslaved people, strengthening the abolitionist movement that led to the Civil War. John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath, humanized the plight of migrant families during the Great Depression and created impetus for many future political movements. Whether a simple truth or a complex ideological debate, stories are an effective vehicle to convey meaning.
Through a story, we walk in another’s shoes and feel their emotions – joy and excitement as well as pain and fear. If humans understand a situation on a personal level, we are more likely to take action. A story can be that personal link. The Me Too movement is another great example. When courageous individuals began sharing about their experiences, perpetrators of abuse were brought to justice and legislation changed. These stories compelled society to act.
You are a born storyteller – we all are! In fact, studies indicate that personal stories and gossip comprise 65% of our conversations. But telling your stories – especially the ones that are personal – can be scary. Sharing requires vulnerability and courage. But this openness helps us understand each other and develop compassion.
If you aren’t confident in your storytelling, don’t worry. Storytelling is a skill – you can practice and improve! There are many resources available from Ted Talks and Youtube videos to research articles and hardcover books. But mainly, just practice and listen when others share with you!
I haven’t met you yet, but I bet you are incredible, unique, and have had experiences I can’t even imagine. Would you let us look through your eyes to see things we’ve never perceived? I can’t stress this enough – your stories are so important and help us all. Please share your stories!
Hannah Sleight is passionate about pursuing meaning and telling good stories. In 2019, Hannah graduated from Geneva College where she studied international business and played soccer. During the summers between semesters, she served as a white water raft guide and trip leader at Journey Quest – a wilderness and whitewater nonprofit. Over the past two years Hannah has served as a traveling representative and a content creator with Compassion International. Hannah believes we should nurture dreams, tell stories, and develop talents.
Linkedin Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-sleight/
Hannah’s Portfolio: https://hannahsleight.blogspot.com/