How Storytelling Heals

“Once upon a time…”

These four words automatically ignite a response in us to listen for what happens next. We expect to be introduced to a hero, someone like us, who is faced with challenges and learns how to overcome obstacles to reach a desirable destination. We also expect to enjoy listening to this unfolding of events and to be moved emotionally along this narrative journey.

Storytelling has existed for as long as humans have, and it continues to be a part of all cultures. Although the vehicles for telling stories have evolved over time, from oral traditions to the written word, and then to the stage, radio, movies, television, and the Internet, what has not changed is our innate impulse to both hear and tell stories.

Our Survival Depends on Stories

In his book Tell to Win, movie producer Peter Guber describes his trip to Papua, New Guinea, to learn about the role storytelling plays in primitive cultures. He realized that among tribes with no written language, certain stories are told and retold orally from one generation to the next, especially as part of ceremonies for passage into adulthood. The content of these stories includes information about farming, hunting, and building. In other words, the stories teach young people what they need to know to survive.

Humans have become instinctually attracted to storytelling as a means of survival. There is even a specific type of brain cell that assists in this process.

Biological Basis

A system of “mirror neurons” in the human brain is responsible for our ability to tune into other people’s feelings and sensations. For example, mirror neurons are what make our mouth water when we see someone else eating food that we like. The part of our brain that activates when we eat reacts as if we ourselves are eating.

Similarly, when we see someone else experiencing pain, our mirror neurons activate the part of our brain that feels pain, enabling us to empathize. It works the same way with other emotions, too, like fear and happiness.

Natural Therapy

Thanks to our mirror neurons, when we hear an uplifting story about someone beating the odds, we also feel that sense of accomplishment. Storytelling heals when we engage in stories about pain being transformed into enlightenment, because we empathize with the experiences of the story’s hero. We learn from story characters how to survive emotional devastation and grow stronger.

One reason why the Bible remains a bestseller is that it offers spiritual guidance through many stories, from the Garden of Eden to the parables that Jesus told. Other religions have also passed down stories throughout generations, such as Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita.

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

It doesn’t matter when or where a story is set, or even if the characters are human—as long as the story demonstrates situations we can relate to. Though none of us has Darth Vader as our father, many of us can relate to Luke Skywalker’s conflict when he learns that his father is not who he thought he was. And it is in Luke’s willingness to save his father anyway that we ourselves experience the healing power of forgiveness.

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3 thoughts on “How Storytelling Heals

  1. TheresaTheresa

    Thanks for your comments! I really enjoyed researching and writing this article. So glad you enjoyed reading it.

    Gina Rose, that’s great that you grew up with a master storyteller uncle. And, Jacqueline, thanks for the observation about the freedom from ego that we experience as a result of the brain cell connection.

    In light and love,

  2. Gina Rose ext.9500Gina Rose ext.9500

    Very interesting article…….

    you mentioned religions……in the Wiccan religion, much has been handed down by word of mouth from Wiccan Elders…..same goes for some certain Native American Indian tribes as I understand.

    My daughter ( who teaches Wicca) and I plan on teaching Wicca to my grandchild soon in the form of storytelling……should be fun, for her & myself.

    Storytelling is also a great family bonding process… of my most favorite Uncles was a master storyteller… a child I was fascinated by his stories and thrilled when I knew he going to visit us as I knew he would tell another fantastic story. His stories were about his adventures ( mainly his merchant marines days ) about his travels and his experiences good and bad….

    Blessed Be )O(
    Gina Rose ext.9500

  3. Jacqueline

    Hi Teresa,
    What an interesting article, love it…. I totally agree with the fact that story telling draws from a specific brain cell, it allows us to connect with the story without being emotionally attached on an ego level, so then there-for we see ourselves through different eyes and we recognize within our self how we can and do change, it also gives us an incite on what the results of our change will be, which gives hope and encouragement on how the change will bring great joy.

    Blessings and Big Hugs!
    Jacqueline x9472


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