Sunday, January 15, 2012

This is Your Brain on Story

This is the first article in a series on story and the brain.

There is nothing more powerful than story. Those who tell stories literally create the world -- for better or worse. It's sometimes said that an enemy is someone whose story you don't yet know. But we can just as easily say that war starts with a story of threat. The stories we tell about our lives shape the way we interpret information streaming through our senses to our conscious mind. More than that, story shapes the brain itself.

Increasingly, neuroscientists understand the brain as a "plastic" structure that changes and adapts over a lifetime rather than one that is "finished" at a certain early point in life. Storytelling, in its healing use, intrigues brain researchers because of its observed ability to actually reduce symptoms of physical and mental illness, calm stress, and create deep emotional connection between teller and listeners.

We now live in a world of agonizing paradox: searching for happiness and finding emptiness; yearning for freedom yet increasingly caught in a web of regulations, hierarchies, and material expectations; striving for creativity and strangled by judgment; wanting intimacy, connectedness, and warmth but addicted to technology and virtual reality.

The underlying cause, says British psychiatrist Iain McCalister, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, is illustrated by the popular graphic above. The two hemispheres of our brain, left and right, which are meant to function collaboratively, are no longer doing so.

The control-seeking, standardizing, rational left brain has taken over, creating a world in its own image while marginalizing the humanizing, intuitive, inspired intelligence of the right brain, says McCalister. In its very nature, the left brain is a closed system that reflects only itself, like a hall of mirrors, like Narcissus gazing at his reflection -- a world that refuses to accept anything it doesn't already know.

Here's where story, creator of worlds, enters the picture:

In archetypal healing story, the claiming of the Grail is a metaphor for the integration of ego (the personality or smaller self) with Self (the part of us that connects with all of life, the collective unconscious, our soul). From a brain perspective, it is also a journey out of the ordinary world of left brain consciousness into the "special" world of the right.

In these stories, the hero is often an ordinary person who takes an extraordinary journey that kills the old limiting and self-absorbed ego, and releases Self into their life. They return with the ability to "see whole" -- that is, to see the whole picture of life from the perspective of whole brain, collective unconscious, the Soul. Understanding at last the core need beneath suffering and conflict, they are able to take the right action to restore life to a dead situation.

So can you see how story is a whole-brain experience?

~ “Once upon a time…” opens the gates to a vast but unconscious realm of information stored in the right half of your brain. Sensory images, landscapes, characters, and dramatic situations activate powerful memories, fantasies, and emotional states.

~ Story structure, including beginning, middle, and end; the sequence of scenes or chapters; suspense and dramatic arc -- these are the hooks that keep the left brain entertained, attentive, and satisfied.

~ Very briefly, story channels the intuitive, emotional, and inspired power of your right brain through the rational, structuring, and strategic power of the left brain. Aligned, the two hemispheres of your brain exert an enormous integrating and creative power, very likely beyond anything you've experienced.

You may have heard the phrase: "Change your thoughts; change your life." Well, now that phrase is evolving into "Change the brain; change the world."

You are so much more powerful than you know!

Two articles exploring story and the brain follow in the next couple of months. The next one is "Divided Brain, Broken World, and the Need for Healing Stories." The last article in this series is "Healing the Split: Why We Tell and Listen to Stories."

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.


  1. This is wrong. "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World" is misrepresented "by the graphic above"; the differences between the two hemispheres are subtle. Not so clear cut as the picture suggests. One of the things McGilchrist was worried about was a distortion of his ideas.

    You have sinned my darling.

  2. Sorry that my understanding offends you. I would think it would be obvious from this very short post that I wasn't dealing in subtleties, but trying to state in a very simple and direct way why McGilchrist's talk interested me, as someone interested in the way story and metaphor affect the brain, healing, and individual and collective life. And why it would make good viewing to someone not particularly interested in these matters.

  3. I can't really say much... just for me it is basic. You can atleast tell from this post what one side is more like compared to another. I wont get factual... but mostly just a flash card reference.