Storytelling is a fundamental part of the human experience. We all tell stories and we all love to hear a good one.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that something so central to our lives plays a role in healthy cognition. At one time, good storytelling was essentially a survival skill. It’s a skill that has been highly valued throughout history.
Through the years, community elders shared stories which fed our society’s knowledge, history, and wisdom. Now, research suggests that the aging orators among us actually benefit just as much from sharing their stories as those who experience them through listening.
Longevity research into how storytelling impacts our brains is ongoing, but data collected thus far suggests that memory, mood and better interpersonal relationships are all common benefits experienced by those who partake in what is called “reminiscence therapy.”
Studies which have examined reminiscence therapy applied to people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s have looked at the impact storytelling has on cognitive function and quality of life measures such as happiness and mood. Both appear to improve through personal and autobiographical storytelling.
As an act of creativity, it’s not all that surprising that our brains benefit from telling stories. They challenge us to remember details, be succinct, develop characters and experience emotions in a variety of ways.
Those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia may feel more confident in their ability to express themselves and experience more positive feelings which in turn reduces stress and agitation. For example, conversing about the past often provides a release from boredom and can alleviate symptoms of depression.
The Chemical Response to Story
Experiencing stories is just that, an experience. Unlike reading a textbook or watching slideshow presentation, parts of our brains are engaged when we hear stories that relate to what’s happening. When someone tells us a story about how fast a car was going, we experience that through our motor cortex as if we were there, experiencing the events for ourselves.
A byproduct of this is an increase in certain chemicals within the brain. For example, cortisol levels may rise as a result of something in the story causing us distress. This heightens our attention to it and thus, our brains tend to feed off drama in some ways.
As the details unfold and a story takes a satisfying twist, this causes the release of dopamine. That is essentially the brain’s reward for following along.
But the chemical that plays possibly the most important role in the effect of storytelling on your brain is oxytocin. Promoting prosocial behavior, such as the ability to empathize, oxytocin is what helps us distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in a story.
Through metaphors and adjectives, the language processing portions of our brains fuel imagination and put our brains to work in different ways than normal. This is because stories often mirror the way that we think (cause and effect) and appeal to our egos (we relate things to our own experiences) which then causes different parts of the brain to become active.
So don’t be afraid to sit down and share a story about your day, a fond memory or a funny anecdote. Doing so is good for your brain and will help improve the way you feel and interact with other people.