New Narratives in Old Brains: The Need for Story

David Krueger, MD

When medical patients share their stories, their health often improves.  A study just published in The Annals of Internal Medicine found that patients telling and listening to stories—personal narratives with other patients or between doctors and patients—had a positive impact on blood pressure regulation.  In fact, the effect of storytelling for patients with hypertension was as effective as the addition of more medication.  In another study, contact and interaction with other patients who had already undergone a transplant made a great deal of difference in both attitude and outcome. 

We learn through stories.  Stories are how we understand and how we remember—a way to hold information and to make sense of things.  Defense lawyers know this.  So do little kids standing next to broken vases.  Stories create both personal mastery as well as connection to others.  Marketers have also figured this out, which is why we see so many stories in advertisements. 

A recent study at Princeton used brain scans to find that when one person tells a story and the other actively and empathically listens, their brain patterns begin to synchronize.  Their neural activity mirrors each other.  If the listener fails to comprehend what the speaker is trying to communicate, their brain patterns decouple. 

We are hard-wired to convert our lives into stories.  Our narratives—the stories we tell about ourselves—both describe and determine what we do.  We become the stories we tell about ourselves.

State of the art neuroimaging and cognitive neuropsychology have demonstrated how we create our “selves” through narrative. Our left brain specializes in personal self-narrating actions, emotions, and thoughts.  This interpreter function is the glue that keeps our stories unified to create a cohesive sense of self.  These language areas of the left hemisphere draw on memory from the midbrain hippocampal circuits, and the planning regions in the orbital frontal cortex. 

A successful resolution to a troubled past story is to transform it by learning from it.  We become wiser for it, and more adaptive.  We shift from repeating the old story and programming to recognize, own, and assess that story to decide what to change.

We extract the lesson from the past experience to write a new narrative in a current context.  The new story overwrites the old story, and the latter disappears in its transformation.  The past becomes memory, like our lap when we get up to walk, rather than an active intrusion on the present.  This places the memory on a library shelf in our mind, as a choice to revisit at will. 

We remember in order to forget.

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