Human beings are natural storytellers, and the roots of the talking cure harken back to gatherings around ancient campfires. Through countless generations, we have shared stories of the hunt, the exploits of our ancestors, and morality tales of good and evil. The urge to tell stories and gossip is embedded in our psyches, wired into our brains, and woven into our DNA. This is why People magazine will always outsell Scientific American. For most of human history, oral communication and verbal memory were the repository of our collective knowledge. The drive of elders to repeatedly tell the same stories is matched only by the desire of young children to hear the same stories again and again. This lock-and-key information highway carries memories, ideas, and values across generations.
Stories also serve as powerful tools for neural network integration. The combination of a linear story line and visual imagery woven together with verbal and nonverbal expressions of emotion activates circuitry of both cerebral hemispheres, cortical and subcortical networks, the various regions of the frontal lobes, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. This integrative neural processing may also account, in part, for the positive correlations between coherent narratives and secure attachments. Further, shared stories contain images and ideas that stimulate imagination and link individuals to the group mind.
Narratives are also powerful because they allow us to have an objective distance on direct experience, creating the possibility of alternate viewpoints. Through stories, we can escape the emotions and influences of the moment and take time to reflect on our experience. We can also share versions of possible selves with others to receive input about our experiences and perspectives. Finally, we can experiment with new emotions, actions, and language as we edit the scripts of our lives.
Although it seems that children are little scientists discovering the world, we often miss that they are primarily engaged in discovering what the rest of us already know about them. As children we are told by others, and we gradually begin to tell others, who we are, what is important to us, and what we are capable of. This serves the continuity of culture from one generation to the next as parents reflexively strive to re-create themselves. This can be both good and bad depending on the parents and the goodness of fit with their children. Stories are powerful organizing forces that serve to perpetuate both healthy and unhealthy forms of self-identity. There is evidence that positive self-narratives aid in emotional security while minimizing the need for elaborate psychological defenses.
The role of language and narratives in neural integration, memory formation, and self-identity make them powerful tools in the creation and maintenance of the self. Putting feelings into words has long served a positive function for many individuals suffering from stress or trauma. Even writing about your experiences supports top-down modulation of emotion and bodily responses. In listening to our clients, we reflexively analyze their narratives for inaccurate, destructive, and missing elements. We then attempt to edit their narratives in a manner we feel would better support their adaptation and well-being.
Why Therapy Works, Louis Cozolino