Sunday, May 20, 2012

Healing the Split: Why We Tell and Listen to Stories

N.C. Wyeths, "Odysseus and Penelope"
This is the third article in a series on story and the brain.

“… and so they lived happily ever after. And the kingdom flourished.”

After the conflict, exile, heartache, and triumph, a happy ending. The hero claims the Grail, returns with it to restore the kingdom to health, finds or reunites with his soul mate, and their union symbolizes a new beginning for the world. From a dead situation, life flows again.

We yearn for the end of Odysseus' tortured wanderings; for his return to Ithaca, his home; and for reunion with Penelope, his wife. Their happy ending catalyzes healing in our own emotional and spiritual life and even in the life of our brain. 

Stories give structure and meaning to a life that inherently lacks both. Through the power of metaphor, stories guide us through the darkness in our own lives to that place of wholeness, resolution, and light for which we long. This is why we will always tell and listen to stories.


My clients are usually people who have suffered some kind of shattering in their lives and have either gone as far as they could in traditional therapy or weren’t able to find the peace they sought, and who are seeking a deeper and more imaginative approach to solving their problems.

Story offers that approach -- especially the story format defined by mythologist Joseph Campbell as the hero's journey, but which has been used to heal and uplift lives from the beginning of human existence. Following that journey paradigm, I help my clients reframe their problem as a call to adventure and use the structure and elements of the hero’s journey as metaphors for the process of rebuilding their lives.

In terms of story, the hero’s journey is essentially a rite of passage in which someone leaves behind a dying ordinary world to go on a quest for a life-saving cure. They travel through a strange and forbidding land, meet all kinds of extraordinary creatures, events, and obstacles, and eventually claim the Grail that heals all wounds. Transformed inwardly and outwardly by their journey, the traveler, now truly a hero, makes another arduous journey back to the ordinary world with the healing prize that restores life and light.

A hero is someone who pushes the limits and changes the story. Using this journey structure to help people find their new way in life never fails to move them up and out of stuck places, as a scaffold contains a work of art or new home under construction. It works at the deepest levels of a person's being, including actually changing the connections in brain and body.

Geography of Story; Architecture of the Brain 

Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist well known for writing a number of books on the brain and health, notes that a balance of both halves of the brain is necessary for optimal functioning. In people who suffered early neglect or abuse, the integrative fibers linking up different parts of the brain have been damaged and the brain is not functioning as a harmonious system. Consequently, the body's systems are in conflict and early psychological trauma or neglect can show up in adult life as chronic physical or emotional illness with no immediately identifiable cause.

In some of its aspects, writes Siegel, healing can be understood as a journey to access and strengthen right brain functioning. He is echoed by most scientists, who now accept health as wholeness, integration, coherence – arising from a natural internal dynamic, rather than conforming to an external standard of "fitness" or "normal," as it had previously.

I’m struck by the parallels in the geography of the brain and the trajectory of the hero’s journey.

The journey begins in the Ordinary World, the safe, secure, ordered life of the mainstream, status quo world. This world is made up of the rules, cubicled offices, and built environments through which we move, the verbal and written languages we use to communicate, and the identity that’s given to us and that we adopt wholeheartedly and often mindlessly. But it quickly becomes apparent that something is wrong, things are out of balance, disconnected from life, and the characters who inhabit that world reflect its state of unfulfillment and lack.  (See my previous post:

This Ordinary World of story is a metaphor for the reality created by the left brain, and one that increasingly dominates our world. But as Ian McGilchrist so brilliantly describes, it's not the whole story of existence and our world is dying as a result. Left brain awareness is a closed system reflecting only itself, like a hall of mirrors, and cuts off all routes of escape to the green world that restores and gives meaning to daily life, such as those found in ritual, art, spirituality, and nature.

There is basically one plot underlying all stories, according to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In this universal plot, the ordinary world has come under the rule of dark and egocentric figures who stifle instead of nurture life, but who are, in their egocentricity, blind. This blindness to a larger reality manifests as greed, hunger for power, self-delusion, lack of empathy, narcissism, and the paranoia that infects and obscures the vision of everyone else in their shadow. Everyone is trapped within the dark prison of ego. Story begins when a crisis occurs that magnifies the lack so that it can no longer be avoided, denied, or even fixed.Some brave seeker steps up and offers to go in search for the solution.

The whole middle part of a story is that central character’s journey in search of clarity, light – greater vision, the Grail, the healing elixir, the secret knowledge, all of which stand for the Higher Self -- that ultimately renews the ordinary world.

This seeker crosess mountainous frontiers, sails through stormy seas, and encounters a world beyond any they ever imagined, a world governed by chaotic forces over which they're powerless, and populated by creatures unfamiliar in every way.

This non-ordinary world of the myth matches the environment and function of the right brain: Nature in all its magnificence and chaos, the unconscious, the senses, imagination, intuition, and empathy. The right brain world is the well of Oneness, the ground of existence, what many experience as God. It's by means of the right brain that we find meaning in experience and gain access to our interior life. Through the right brain language of metaphor, we feel our experience and understand it within a greater reality.

What is striking here is how the chasm between the worlds – the ordinary rational one and the wild, life-generating one -- resembles the description of the small membrane connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain -- the Corpus Callosum. At the bottom of a deep indentation separating the two halves of the brain, the function of this organ is ambiguous: it both divides and connects the two sides of the brain. Originally formed to transmit motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the hemispheres, this organ has become larger and more dense; it seems to be functioning increasingly as a separator and less as a transmitter of information.

Eventually, after many tries and failures, the hero has a transformational insight that would have been impossible in ordinary consciousness, and achieves breakthrough (claim their grail, gain a new power, upgrade their identity or status.) He now sees the deep problem, and takes the right action to address it. He is now able to “see whole.” With an expanded consciousness -- symbolized by the Grail -- and resolution to the outer problem, the hero is reborn, and with him, the world. In effect, the hero assumes the original role of the corpus callosum as a bridge between left and right brain realities.

At the end of a story, the hero returns with the Grail to the ordinary world of the left brain, where he is now "Master of Two Worlds," in the words of Campbell, and puts this prize to use for the good of the people. With a restored ability to "see whole," the concrete realism of left brain story is "married" to the greater vision of the right.


Listening to a story with the archetypal structure of the ancient hero’s journey activates a modern listener’s own internal capacity for integration and wholeness. No matter what the issue a person faces, the profound integrating experience and language of mythic storymaking creates a life-saving framework for embracing, expressing, and moving through the pain of terrible experience. It holds not just the promise but the roadmap to a healthy and fulfilled life.

At the same time, remember that in life the end of one journey is the beginning of another. The hero's journey never ends; old stories keep spiraling around and around, while we learn more with each iteration, until eventually, if we do the consciousness-raising work (that is, reweave the stories from a "seeing whole" perspective), they dissolve. New stories and realities emerge.

In Campbell's words, "What I think is that a good life is one heroic journey after another. Over and over again you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss."


A Whole-Brain Story Making Process

1. This is the most powerful process I know of to support healing and catalyze change. Write down or sketch out the “real” situation from the story elements: time frame, environments/emotional mood; characters; conflicts; projected plot. This is your present story, as told by the left brain. It can hold your “back story,” all the narratives you’ve told yourself that have shaped the life you now find yourself living. You might see what’s missing for you. This tells you what you need or want – the story you want to emerge, the story that holds your passion and purpose for being here.

2. Turn your present, past, or future story into a fairy tale, figurative drawing, abstract painting, collage, whatever injects the imagination into reality. It can be helpful to write about yourself in the third person, past tense. In fairy tale, there's no psychologizing, no interpretation, internal monologues, or reductive analysis -- only nouns and verbs, characters, landscapes, conflicts, and action. For instance, we tend to describe ourselves as "powerful," "confused," "happy" "disappointed in ourselves," or "sad." Fairy tale and mythical characters can become forces of nature, clouds, shafts of light, frogs, and lions. This shapeshifting is what liberates words, activates visceral emotions, and creates new neural connections that transform life -- first within, and then without.

Start with "Once upon a time...," the four magical words that open a gateway to the right brain. Externalize the emotional quality of your experience into a landscape that expresses it; turn an addiction or specific condition into a monster; make your characters into fantastic creatures who capture a significant psychological quality transform the conflict inherent in your situation into a marathon battle between the Forces of Light and Darkness or a clown show -- whatever arena offers an opportunity to discover and play out the drama in your circumstances in an imaginative, non-threatening way. For yourself, take the role of Storyteller, Greek Chorus, audience, or puppet master -- whatever Creator/Witness role that most appeals. Your intention in this step is to become one who grasps the larger picture beyond your small egocentric perception. Keeping in mind the basic plot of archetypal story: crisis, struggle, and transformation, still allow your characters the freedom to speak and act as they want. They may not want to struggle and transform. That will tell you a lot about deeper intentions that you intuit in another or yourself.

This "playing with life" is the catalytic process that activates transformation; injecting the imagination into the raw experience of daily life produces creative alchemy, deepened awareness, and larger perspective. I personally like to play around this way with visual arts as well as writing when I get stuck on a serious piece. It's like repotting a plant into a larger container to enable the roots to expand and support new blooms.

3. Marry the two works with a third improvisational piece of writing. Often you'll find a greater reality that you never dreamed was there. What do you now see or understand? What, if any, guidance did you find that helps you take the next easiest, smallest step toward the new, emergent story? What is the message of your tale?

A final word: we are each a minuscule part of a macro-story that is unfolding in these times. In many ways, we're powerless over the great impersonal forces of "wind and accident," in poet Michael Bloomenthal's words. But we're not powerless over how we respond to their effects on our lives. As the late Czech revolutionary and president Vaclav Havel wrote, one authentic individual action creates a ripple effect that can change the world.

(c) 2012, Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. All rights reserved. 




  1. The journey doesn't begin in the Ordinary World. Far from it. Read and watch the videos at

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