Why is story so powerful?

The nature of stories

Stories have always existed – to entertain, teach, pass on wisdom, record history, represent beliefs, explore new ideas, share experiences, build community, and express creativity.

The story is the basic unit of learning and as such is very important from our earliest years, listening to stories from our parents and carers. The word, story, is derived from the Greek word meaning knowing, knowledge and wisdom. Human beings seem to have a natural tendency to think, speak, be receptive to, and process our experiences in story. The appeal of storytelling is the appeal of the imagination. When we listen to story it gives us the opportunity to create our own images, our own personal blend of imagined sights, sounds, feelings, and much more.

How we respond to story

Dialogue and discussion often stay at the level of the mind, but story can take us into the dimension of the heart. Stories appeal to both logic and emotion. We also learn much faster if information is delivered in story form, and remember stories much more readily than facts, statistics, or conceptual statements.

Hearing the stories of others breaks down the fears that underlie prejudice, and opens us up to the perspectives of others. Through story we see more easily the unique challenges of every individual, and how their beliefs and attitudes make sense within the context of their own experience. We may still disagree with a particular perspective but begin to see how that view makes sense within the story of that person’s life. As a result, we tend not to argue with story as we might with opinion.

Stories change the ‘contract’ with the listener. Less is demanded of us: There is less need to comment, respond or engage; we are allowed simply to listen. As a result we often let our  defences down, become less critical and more open. Similarly, many traditional storytellers see their audiences melt into a slightly dreamy state as they enter the world of imagination and surrender to the world of the story journey. This effect is mirrored in our brain chemistry, which produces a predominance of alpha waves, associated with daydreaming and release from stress.

Why we tell stories

We express our life experience by telling stories. We instinctively transform what happens to us into traditional story structure. Stories help us digest what happens to us and make sense of it. Story connects us to the meaning underlying our experience, or helps us to construct that meaning. It often reveals what we share in common, and what it means to be human. Telling our stories can be an important part of healing from difficult experiences. We make experiences manageable by sharing them with others, and we come to terms with loss and pain through repeatedly telling the story.

Types of story

Personal narrative: Often we use story to organise and extract meaning from the things that happen to us. We ‘re-package’ our experiences as stories with a beginning, middle and end so we can better make sense of them and share them with others.

Conflicting narratives: Of particular interest to community building is the way in which people in conflict can hold different stories about events and their meanings. Working with these opposing narratives is essential to conflict transformation.

Collective stories: These are the stories we share with our families, communities and nations. Collective stories are based on shared histories or belief systems. They illustrate and underpin our values and how we see the world. Traditional stories: Traditional stories include folk tales, fairy tales, myths and legends.

Archetypal stories: Some  forms of traditional story, religious story and myth have a deep symbolic resonance and capture something essential about the human experience. They represent themes that recur in cultures across the world. The psychologist Carl Jung saw archetypal stories as having a profound effect on our unconscious minds. According to Jung, archetypes exist within the collective consciousness of a particular culture or of the human race as a whole. 

Religious stories: Faith-based stories cannot be described in the same language as traditional stories, as it is not possible (or advisable) to label them as fiction. Within their traditions they are understood to express profound truth. Some are said to be divinely inspired. Some religious stories are historical accounts of actual events, some are created for teaching purposes, while others offer symbolic metaphors about the nature of reality. Many have an archetypal dimension. Religious stories that are not strictly historical are sometimes referred to as myths. There can be a lot of debate about which story falls into which category.

Narrative as organising principle: The term ‘narrative’ is increasingly used to express individual or collective beliefs, expectations or thought processes. Narrative in this sense refers to the mental organising structures we use to understand, digest and store information. Our narratives can reflect traditional story structures or may simply refer to a set of established thought processes around a particular theme.

Meta-narrative: This is an overarching story which explains or gives meaning to an aspect of our reality.