We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us.
Twelve Step recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have used personal story telling as a method of communication since its inception in the 1930’s. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events? In fact, it’s quite simple. If we listen to a power point presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.
When we are being told a story the language processing parts in our brain are activated, and so too is the area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story. If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery skin” rouses the sensory cortex. Sentences like “Wil grasped the object” and “Summer kicked the ball” activates the motor cortex which coordinates the body’s movements.
A story can put your whole brain to work. And yet, it gets better. For example, in “Identification” meetings of AA where personal stories reflect the changes to the speaker’s thinking and way of life, the same effect can occur on the listeners too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can actually synchronize; ie if you understood and could relate or “identify” with my personal recovery story your emotional brain region would activate as would mine. By simply relating my story, I can figuratively plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.
Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling. Why is that? Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other, have such a profound impact on our learning? A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how people are wired to think. We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. Whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, disgust or whatever emotion it may be.
We link up metaphors and literal happenings automatically. Everything in our brain is looking for the cause and effect relationship of something we’ve previously experienced.
Stories spark emotions. People use stories to make sense of things; everyone has a story in their heads about what their addiction means for them. This story is the result of thousands of interactions and experiences and it becomes the ‘lens’ through which we interpret the world around us. Shared narrative can engage people in the wider context of the recovery journey that gives people a framework to understand changes and action required. Personal addiction stories have core messages, but can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the lens through which they are being heard. We learn from stories. Stories give people the space to discover the implicit meaning of what’s being said, enabling them to learn, discover and own what they need to do for themselves. Storytelling is a great tool for people seeking new behaviours in recovery. Sharing emotive stories of best practice inspires individuals seeking recovery and helps people learn more quickly through their identification of other’s recovery experience.