Good Stories Rewire the Brain via @FastCompany

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 10.08.08 AMWe live in a time of information overload with amazing new tools to generate unlimited content, yet no reliable off-switch to know when to say when. A time when we seem to have little of it– bombarded with messages, information, advertising, emails, text messages, twitter feeds, facebook posts and more. Until someone creates an app with a more efficient way to sort the wheat from the proverbial chaff, grabbing the lastest best seller or classic novel can not only provide an escape from the onslaught of information, but also a rewiring of the brain, according to a recent @Fast Company article, Why You Should Read More Novels, by @shaunacysays. Experts share:

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 10.08.34 AM“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the study’s lead author. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 10.07.30 AMOn more than one occasion, we have discussed how good stories inspire change by pulling us in on an emotional level (see How Do Great Storytellers Evoke Empathy) . Yes, cute kitties go viral before the latest data on chronic disease. But give that kitty to a 9-year-old girl whose best friend just moved away, stick the kitty up a tree and show Dad begging the fire chief to look at the “big picture” versus the risk of climbing an icy oak tree in sub-zero, January winds…well then, yes, you have a greater chance of fully engaging your audience. Stories like this, it appears, are engaging readers at the cellular level. But is this surprising? It has long been said words can hurt, but we’re only beginning to understand the true power words, and collectively, stories can hold to inspire change.

A few of my favorites are included as images on the page in support of a temporary rewiring, or simply to provide an escape from the pressures of the day. To see lists of additional “good reads” visit @goodreads on Twitter or online at!

Storytelling, the Dramatic Arc and Empathy

In healthcare today, it is the stories we share–

  • …a save by a young resident physician
  • …the bravery of a young father to face countless experimental cancer treatments to spend one more Thanksgiving with his kids
  • …the strength of young mothers who repeatedly share their stories of loss to protect the children of others, or
  • …the ability of new technology to detect illness in time to preserve a life…

that move us to action–slowly in some instances, more quickly in others.

More and more, research is showing that stories designed with classic story structure have the power to move mountains–and us–by altering brain chemistry, and as a result, behavior. The following short video is a narrative version of such research, told by lead investigator and neuroeconomist, Paul Zak. As the story goes, Zak and his team created a narrative story about a young father struggling with his 2-year-old son’s cancer diagnosis. They also created a fact driven story as a control and recruited subjects to watch both types of story. They measured blood levels of oxytocin and cortisol in both groups and then asked both groups to donate money to charity once they had finished viewing the story. What the team found was that viewers who watched the narrative version of the story had higher levels of both oxytocin and cortisol, and donated a greater amount of money. What this tells me is that we are putty in the hands of a good storyteller—and that good movies should come with a warning similar to taking a sedating drug—don’t sign anything important for 24 hours after viewing!


What will you do with the empathy our healthcare stories evoke? Will you act on what you feel in 2014?

Through Another’s Eyes

Courtesy of our friend, Paul Levy at Not Running A Hospital, who shared a post from ePatient Dave’s healthcare blog, made by Cleveland Clinic and inspired by the words of Henry David Thoreau. What would healthcare, and the world, be like if everyone remembered to see through someone else’s eyes?

Please share!

How Do Great Storytellers Create Empathy?

There are many gifted storytellers and teachers of the craft. Robert McKee (aka The Script Doctor) is one. Having attended one of his Story Seminars in Vancouver, BC, I can share firsthand that McKee is indeed a master, with an ability to captivate an audience. For 9 hours a day, over his four-day seminar I sat in the silence he demanded of every student from the outset, soaking up every detail as he deconstructed, then reconstructed, the anatomy of a story.

According to McKee, and along the lines of yesterday’s post, Using Storytelling and Narrative to Develop Empathy In Medical Students, it is critical that the protagonist of a story evokes empathy in order for the audience to have an emotional involvement in the outcome. McKee instructs students to create characters audiences care about–characters that appear to be “just like, or somewhat like, me”. His Storylogue, a paid service that provides daily writing lessons, and his Story Seminars given around the world are (in)famous for producing Hollywood caliber scripts, and published authors across all genres. One last parting bit of storytelling wisdom — McKee believes good storytellers have:

  1. Insight into life–a concept or idea no one else has
  2. Depth of knowledge around that unique insight into life–do the research!
  3. Wit–a little wit goes a long way and can be a saving grace
  4. Passion for perfection–write, rewrite and rewrite again
  5. Taste–taste is a gene–know what’s good and what’s not in your own writing

A second example of masterful storytelling has one of the most unlikely empathetic characters. Of late, I have been watching the multi-Emmy Award-winning (plus others) Showtime series, Dexter. I came to the series late–actually six seasons into it–as I am not a fan of horror, crime stories or murder/mayhem of any sort. Not to mention, I was having a hard time understanding how a show based on a serial-killing lead character could have the universal appeal it does. Rumor has it there are even Dexter bobble-head dolls for sale! It remained one of the “mysteries of Hollywood” in my mind. However, I was convinced by a writing colleague to download the sixth season from Amazon and did so under duress. To my surprise, I was quickly hooked. Here is an excerpt that hits at the heart of the series:

How can a serial killer evoke such universal empathy? Yes, the script may be formulaic, but the story backbone is one of the great ones, with a skillful twist on good vs evil better than any I have read or watched in a very long time.  The brilliance of the writers as they dance at the core of self-worth is inspiring. Are we good or bad? A combination of both? Aside from social norms and laws that guide us, what makes us good or bad, and how do we measure up when comparing ourselves to others? How does that self-assessment hold up to the expectations of who, and what, we are and should be according to significant people in our lives? All this from a serial-killing lead character–who knew? I wonder what Robert McKee thinks!

Man (or woman) versus the self is one of the seven great plot structures. I would put our struggle with ourselves at the top of the list when trying to create narratives that evoke the empathy needed to create change in medicine or anywhere else. How does this knowledge apply to a medical school lesson plan? How can medical professors remind students that each patient, and colleague, has their own story or inner struggle? There exists both beauty and power in developing a connection to those pieces of another human being, and if medical education is failing to make a space for that connection to flourish, it’s no wonder empathy in medical students falls off over training.

How can medical professors allow their students to share their own inner struggle within the profession they are about to take on so that those struggles do not take away from a patient encounter? As new skills are being required of practicing physicians, so too are that of medical educators. How are you preparing for this shift? Please share your strategies–and favorite stories!