Your brain on stories

Stories help us understand ourselves – and connect with others.

Years ago, a physician named Mark Purvis took a therapeutic writing class. He was instructed to write a story about a significant event in his life. Mark wrote a poem about his brother, who had been killed when they were both children:

“The grown-ups stand around watching. Grown-ups know what to do. The grown-ups stand around watching. Is that Simon lying on the pavement? He has got blondie hair like Simon’s. The grown-ups stand around watching. A boy has been run over, another kid says. Is that Simon lying on the pavement? He was walking in front of me. The grown-ups stand around watching. Mrs. Bailey puts a blanket over him – but I can still see his blondie hair.”

It’s a heartbreaking poem (you can read it in its entirety here), but it helped Mark heal from the loss. And that healing process helped him in his work as a physician. Dr. Gillie Bolton, a writer, researcher, and instructor who led the session, remembers the story behind the poem. “He said, ‘It’s changed my practice of medicine so much, because in the past I could not relate to a child who was very ill at all.’ And after that, he could.”

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, studies how stories influence our brain activity and social cognition. In one study, he reviewed data of participants’ brain activity as they were reading stories. Mar found that brain activity responded according to the fictional world the participants were presented with. For instance, if they were reading about kicking a soccer ball, the motor cortex region of the brain that was related to the lower half of the body would be activated. Put simply, their brains responded as if they were kicking the fictional ball.

In this way, reading a story feels like experiencing a story. When a favorite character dies, we feel it deeply. “It’s not the same as a real loved one dying, but it’s similar enough that it can produce things like tears and the same physiological symptoms of sadness,” Mar said. “And we experience this as sadness.”

Stories give us a chance to experience other worlds and to imagine a different version of ourselves within those worlds. They allow us to relive the past and imagine it differently. And they show us the world through someone else’s eyes. Whether it’s Frederick Douglass’ memoir, Ocean Vuong's poetry, or Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, stories give us the chance to more deeply understand the experience of others. In doing so, we’re able to connect with them, even when they come from an entirely different place or time.


March 22: Stories don’t just help us understand the world. They also help us understand ourselves. In the second part of our series on storytelling, we look at how interpreting the stories of our lives – and rewriting them – can change us forever.

March 29: Stories have the power to give meaning to the world and help us connect with others. They also shape our cultural narrative. This week, we’ll delve into what researchers refer to as “honor culture” — and how the values embedded in this culture shapes the lives of millions of people. 



The Story of Stories

You 2.0: The Empathy Gym

Is It Better to Know?


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