Let Me Tell You a Story.
It might just save your life.
"It was a dark and stormy night…"
"When I saw you across the room…"
"A long time ago in a galaxy far away…"
"The day you were born…"
We all want to lean forward and hear the rest of these stories. A story is powerful, whether around a campfire, in a viral video, or snuggled up next to someone you love. It's a way to share knowledge, understand problems, process information, and even encourage healthy behavior change.
Story's Place in Health and Wellness
It's not a stretch to take our most primal information technology, the story, and use it to help people. There are already effective uses in medicine and psychology.
Narrative medicine allows patients to convey their often complicated and unique story about an illness. "[It's] a commitment to understanding patients' lives, caring for the caregivers, and giving voice to the suffering," says Rita Charon, MD, Ph.D. By listening to the whole story (not just the data presented by test results or disparate notes in a patient file), health professionals can better formulate a course of treatment. Narrative medicine is now a part of the curriculum at many medical schools.
The American Medical Association has a module for physicians to learn empathetic listening. After all, a story can't be told if it's not heard. "Empathetic listening fosters the connection between the patient and physician and can effectively alleviate difficult conversations. Patients who feel understood are often more open and responsive to their physician's advice. In return, physicians may have an improved sense of professional satisfaction and joy in work."
Psychology has long recognized the value and healing power of telling your story. In a therapeutic setting, therapists give clients full permission (sometimes for the very first time) to share their experiences, trauma, and pain. This guided story sharing and processing can profoundly affect well-being and physical health, like an improved immune response.
The book "Redirect" found that story-editing, or changing people's stories about themselves and what's happening to them, is key to successful therapy outcomes. University of Virginia psychologist Timothy D. Wilson, Ph.D., says these techniques have broad applications. They can be used to "close the achievement gap in education, reduce stereotyping and prejudice, and get young people to drink less. Parents can also use these techniques to help their kids develop healthy narratives." 1
Post-traumatic growth describes the processing of trauma and subsequent transformation, where many people find new meaning, identity, purpose, and healing after painful events. Story-editing is often a critical part of this undertaking. "People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have, and a better understanding of how to live life," says the theory's co-founder, Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D.
Your Brain Loves A Good Story
fMRI shows that your brain responds to a story almost as if you're living it yourself. Whether you read or listen to a story, "the same cognitive and emotional parts of the brain are likely to be stimulated." 2 In an almost magical way, a skilled storyteller and listener experience synchronized brain activity in a known phenomenon as neural coupling.3
Story can engage the brain's emotional, sensory, and motor areas. And a compelling story can trigger the release of neurotransmitters like oxytocin, which has "the power to affect our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors." 4
Storytelling Can Encourage Healthy Behaviors
Just as sharing your own story can benefit others, hearing stories can be like getting encoded instructions on how to (or not to) behave; it's why a friend's story of a health scare or a testimonial from someone relatable is very persuasive.
There have been numerous studies exploring this across varied subject matter. For example, in the case of climate change, "narratives framed as stories consistently outperformed factual narratives for encouraging action-taking in all audiences." 5
Regarding health implementations, "entertainment education" is defined as prosocial messages embedded in entertainment content. One analysis examined various health behaviors, such as AIDS prevention, breast cancer screenings, and organ donation. It found that "story-based entertainment-education has a signiﬁcant impact on health-related behaviors worldwide (e.g., Shen & Han, 2014)." 6
In another study, "…conveying cancer risk in the context of a story about a Latino family, which utilizes the Latino cultural value of storytelling with relatable protagonists, increased colorectal cancer prevention intentions in Latino participants. These intentions included engaging in lifestyle behaviors like eating vegetables and exercising." 7
Using Story In Your Health Campaigns
Story is one of the most powerful communication tools we have as humans. We think in stories. We speak in stories. And we can learn and change through stories. New evidence reveals how impactful narratives are for improving our health and wellness every day, so let's start using them! It can help your audience tune in, connect, and take positive actions to transform their health and lives.
About the author:
Suruchi Krieglstein is the co-founder of Live Neuron Labs. She artfully applies behavioral design to positively impact health, wellness, education and the world. She is a patent holder with 15+ years of experience designing interactive content.
- Revising your story
- A map of the brain can tell what you're reading about
- Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication
- Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative
- Stories vs. facts: triggering emotion and action-taking on climate change
- Effectiveness of entertainment education in communicating health information: a systematic review
- Enhancing Health Message Framing With Metaphor and Cultural Values: Impact on Latinas' Cervical Cancer Screening