Research finds that stories leave biological traces in our brains

biological traces in our brains, national story-telling week
girl reading a books. © Daniil Peshkov

National story-telling week is here in the UK from January 26th to February 2nd, so it is time to look at ongoing scientific research on biological traces in the brain

How important are stories to your everyday life?

News stories that shock us and inform us, anecdotes from loved ones that we treasure, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, the stories that children explore with curiosity and imagination, the empowering telling of a story to someone you trust, even the stories we are told by governments: we live complex lives but they are full of stories.

On the power and necessity of stories, The Society for Storytelling said:

“Storytelling can be found enriching lives everywhere. The sharing between teller and listener empowers, feeding the imagination from one generation to the next.”

When people read a story that ‘changed their life’ and then stays with them, this can leave biological traces on the brain – according to research conducted by Emory University. These changes can linger atleast for a few days. Neuroscientist Greogy Berns, lead author of the Emory study, said:

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person […] We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.

The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.

We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Therefore, heightened connectivity was seen in the central sulcus of the brain, which is the primary sensory motor region of the brain. The neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body: a process called grounded cognition.

So the empathetic nature of an individual after reading a novel could be expanded, with their sensory awareness possibly mimicking what the character is undergoing. This can also provide a healing aspect for those suffering from the isolating perspectives found within mental health issues.

A study conducted by USC scientists tells us how English, Farsi and Mandarin readers use the same parts of the brain to decode the deeper meaning of what they’re reading – another transcending of imagined boundaries.

Therefore, empathy can be evoked and is not lost in translation – which is an important idea to remember in the modern political climate. Morteza Dehghani, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, said:

“Even given these fundamental differences in language, which can be read in a different direction or contain a completely different alphabet altogether, there is something universal about what occurs in the brain at the point when we are processing narratives.”

Couples also benefit from the telling of stories – particularly reclaiming positive stories during times of distance and stress within the relationship. Dr Karen Skerett, member at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, describes “we-stories” in her book about de-stigmatising couples’ therapy. The couples who can find their stories and share them, can preserve and strengthen their dynamic.

The further use of stories to teach children moral understanding, used by teachers and parents as an educational tool is an invaluable asset to their mental growth.

For inspiration on how to participate, here is how some are engaging in National story-telling week:


Happy National story-telling week to everyone, let us know how you celebrate it or about any research you are carrying out by tweeting us @openaccessgov.


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