This week’s blog is linking with National Storytelling Week. Reading to our children has many benefits. It increases their sense of connection as we snuggle up on a comfy bed with a warm blanket. This connection creates a lovely release of oxytocin which reduces the stress hormone, cortisol. So, reading to your children is good for your mental well-being as well as theirs. This reduction in cortisol is also like to improve their learning. In addition, reading to our children helps to support and develop their language and improve their logic skills.
Why is story-telling so good for our children?
Stories are wonderful, they engage our imagination and allow our brain to attach meaning and connection. Reading a story or listening to a story is something that we may think of as a leisure activity, or perhaps as part of our education. But stories have the ability to challenge our thinking, our behaviour and have the power to create change.
Storytelling – for both the teller and the listener (reader) develops our imagination. Through storytelling we can develop our sense of connection and empathy. The emotions which are conjured through storytelling can elicit a neurotransmitter reaction and a release of oxytocin with improves our sense of connection in relationships.
The impact of stories on the brain
Stories can lift our mood and outlook, when we lose ourselves in a story, we are able to take a break from the stresses and worries of our day-to-day life. This break can increase our oxytocin and reduce our cortisol, these two neurotransmitters can have a positive effect on both pain and our emotions.
If stories have power to improve our mood when we are reading for leisure, what impact can they have if we use them in a therapeutic setting?
“…and while you ponder those thoughts, I’d like to tell you a story…once upon a time…”
This may be a familiar sentence to you if you (or your child) have been enjoying the relaxation audio that we give to all our clients as part of the free initial consultation.
Our brains (and our recall) favour stories. Stories were once the way history, knowledge and wisdom were passed down from generation to generation. Our brains are wired in such a way that they don’t know the difference between imagination and reality. Have you ever had the moment of realisation where you were certain that you had a particular memory but actually your memory is of the retelling of the event (which sometimes is linked to a familiar photo)?
When we connect with a story, particularly if we can vividly imagine it and there are strong emotions linked with it, our brain lays down that memory and is unable to differentiate between the imagined and the reality.
Did you know that stories can improve our memory?
We are more likely to remember information that has been weaved into a narrative. In a study at Stanford University it was shown that 6 to 7 times more facts were recalled when associated with a story than as a random list1.
This is a powerful tool that our brain uses, sometimes negatively, and that we can harness for good. We all have stories – narratives that impact on our behaviour. Our internal stories create a viewpoint from which we operate.
A phobia, for example, is connected to a vivid story…
Once upon a time we had ONE (initially at least) upsetting experience which our brain linked with, for example, a spider. At the time of this experience, we were experiencing strong emotions (and likely a full stress bucker) either directly or indirectly connected to the spider. In the retelling, and in every subsequent retelling of that story, our brain (not knowing the difference between imagination and reality) creates an ADDITIONAL experience of that same event. The retelling of this one experience accumulates memories (the actual event and the later imaginings of the same event) along with emotions and the chemical responses (cortisol and adrenalin). The next spider encounter triggers a response in our brain to the many stored imagined events and is then the story for that encounter – and we may have the beginning of a phobia.
You’ll be glad to know that we can reverse these phobic responses by again harnessing the brain’s inability to recognise the difference between reality and imagination, by using vivid imagination to overwrite the brain’s patterns of behaviour. But perhaps that’s a story for another blog!
How stories are used in therapy
In a therapeutic setting we can use stories to help teach and convey meaning. When explaining how the brain works in our initial consultations, we develop a narrative to support children’s (and parent’s) understanding by connecting and linking neuroscience to stories which evoke their imagination and emotions. If you are a client, you may recall being asked to “imagine you step outside and there’s a huge polar bear, what would happen? Your anxiety would increase and…”. In later sessions the anxiety responses are more easily recalled when linked to the polar bear.
The brain’s connection to stories is harnessed in our relaxation time. We use particular language patterns to allow the brain to make associations without raising its own threat level and evoking an anxiety or fear response. Here we use metaphors to allow the brain to create is own connections. Where the conscious mind may avoid or reject exploring ideas, when we introduce these through metaphor, we allow the subconscious mind to create its own connections and begin to consider a desired change or different outcome.
The stories we tell ourselves
Our conscious brain also listens to the stories we tell and will take instruction from these stories.
What stories have you heard your children say?
“I’m rubbish at maths”.
“I can’t make friends”.
These ‘stories’ can create a narrative that the brain, not knowing the difference between imagination and reality, responds to. These stories can become beliefs and these beliefs can become behaviours. When your child instructs their brain that “I’m rubbish at maths” they begin to construct the story that; they won’t understand, they will get it wrong, there is no point in trying. The resulting behaviour may then be that they find it difficult to focus and put effort into their maths for fear of failure and this behaviour then results in backing up their original belief.
What happens if we introduce a different story?
Some ways you can enable your child to do this include:
- Help your children (and yourself) by reframing the stories. “Sometimes I find maths difficult” Now our brain can hear that therefore sometimes I find some of maths easy. “If I have some help in maths, I find maths easier”. This slight change to the story our child is telling themselves supports their brain in seeing the opportunity to improve. Their internal stories or narratives can build from success or failure.
- Ask your children to recall and retell their previous wins. When they recall or retell their successes, they improve self-esteem and are motivated to succeed. In the same way the brain can multiply negative memories, it can also multiply positive ones. With each retelling, especially if vividly imagining and describing the event, the imagined retelling builds and strengthens the neuro pathways as if there were a number of successful events. Additionally, if we recall a failure narrative in a positive way; recalling overcoming the challenge, acknowledging skills gained to be better prepared for the next challenge, they are building confidence and resilience. Stories engage our minds and through storytelling we can introduce positive intentions. When a child (or anyone) is told they must make a change or do something differently, the amygdala (the fight/flight centre of the brain) goes on high alert. Its job is to protect us, and any change is scary, as the outcomes are unknown. Within storytelling, an idea can be introduced indirectly, which allows the subconscious to consider the change without alerting the amygdala.
- Harness the power of stories. There are times in parenting when we, from our own painful experience, know the best course of action. Before you tell your child what they must do, perhaps pause and think if there is a story that you could share. You may feel, as your children get older and perhaps are now teenagers, that the time for bedtime stories has passed. However, your older child might enjoy you reading one of your favourite books with them and in turn might share one of their favourites with you. Even if the opportunity to read aloud has passed, shared reading matter may give you the opportunity to discuss a difficult issue within a fictional context!
1 Gordon H. Bower & Michal C. Clark Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning