Stories Change Hearts and Brains

Louis Zamperini was born and raised in an Italian family with modest means. During the arc of his life he grew from rebel to running champion, and then survivor. Unbroken is Laura Hillenbrand's tribute to his story of resilience and redemption, as in the book subtitle. See his journey here.

Hillenbrand has first person familiarity with resilience. In the conversation at the back of the book she explains how she came about and became enthralled with Louis Zamperini's story while conducting research for her previous novel, Seabiscuit. She also expands on the condition that gripped her throughout the writing of the book — myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) — the subject of The New Yorker's article, “A Sudden Illness,” which won the 2004 National Magazine Award.

Four years into writing Unbroken she had a relapse of ME, compounded by chronic vertigo, which made it impossible for Hillenbrand to read:

it left me so weak that I was unable to make it downstairs for months, and couldn't muster the strength to leave my house for two years. Fortunately, my interviews and research were largely done, so all I had left was to write. I did so every day, but I had to give every bit of my strength to it.

[…] I got the book done more than two years late.

She always managed to find a way through as did Zamperini despite the dramatic food rationing and unimaginable conditions he endured in Japanese prison camps after surviving starvation, sunburns, and shark attacks in the Pacific.

Elizabeth Sbovoda writes in Aeon magazine about the power of story:

Across time and culture, stories have been agents of personal transformation – in part because they change our brains


The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.

The characters of larger-than-life figures in epics were transmitted orally from teachers to young students first in ancient Greece — a tradition that continued in lands conquered physically and intellectually by the then Greek empire, and that continues today in Italian Liceo Classico.

One reason the epics had such staying power was that they instilled values like grit, sacrifice, and selflessness, especially when young people were exposed to them as a matter of course. ‘The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text, not just because it was old and reverenced, but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life; a way of thinking under stress,’ wrote William Harris, the late classics professor emeritus at Middlebury College, Vermont. ‘They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character, but only if it were read carefully, over and over again.’

In their quest to lead a good life, generations of Greeks looked to the epics for inspiration, giving rise to ancient hero cults that worshiped the exploits of characters like Achilles and Odysseus. The historian J E Lendon points out that the Homeric emphasis on conquering cities by trickery is mirrored in later Greek battle strategy, underscoring the tales’ impact not just on minds, but on cultural norms and behaviors.

We have known this intuitively — stories change our thinking, and the way we interact with the world:

Using modern technology like functional MRI (fMRI) scanning, scientists are tackling age-old questions: What kind of effect do powerful narratives really have on our brains? And how might a story-inspired perspective translate into behavioral change?

As with many learning processes, our mental response begins with mimicry. Further, “the stories we absorb seem to shape our thought processes in much the same way lived experience does.” We identify with the stories and their characters at a deep level.

This may explain why when we are drawn into a movie, we sit on the edge of our seat, or why some of us are tempted to talk to the screen (okay, I used to do that):

We argue with stories, internally or out loud. We talk back. We praise. We denounce. Every story is the beginning of a conversation, with ourselves as well as with others

We also feel strong moral motivations:

in a 2013 study at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, fiction readers who felt emotionally transported into a story scored higher on a scale of empathic concern one week after their reading experience.

This kind of gut-level empathetic response to story can inspire people to behave differently in their lives. The biggest changes occur when we recognize how a narrative matters to us.

Given the opportunity through the right environment and teachings, which involves eliciting participation with open-ended questions and forming a different perspective through reading the classics and narrative, children respond to emotion with empathy.

We should become more aware of the power of inquiry and learn to ask the right questions, says Warren Berger in A More Beautiful Question. The book's premise is knowledge obsolete? leads the way to other powerful questions. Questions are a powerful way to renew our shelf-life. They are the mechanisms at the heart of discovery in science, philosophy, medicine, and more.

The stories we tell ourselves are not only integral to our well-being, they have the power to change our actions. The stories we tell others can be the beginning of better experiences. We think in the same way expressed by a recent Wired article:

I don’t want Yelp; I want to know where to eat. I don’t care about Google Calendar; I care about not missing appointments. I don’t buy iPhones; I buy best-in-class pictures of my kids. I’m loyal only to results, and I suspect you are, too.



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