In her essay The Power of Story, Elizabeth Svoboda summarizes recent brain research on the effects of story telling on our brains. In one study, a graduate student, while being given an MRI of the brain, told an unrehearsed story. Eleven volunteers were also given the same MRI while listening to the story. The analysis of the results concluded that listening to a story maps the listeners’ brains to look very much like the story teller’s brain. In addition to that, the analysis showed that a story has the ability to affect the human brain and elicit action from the person in almost identical ways to having an actual experience. Stories allow us, through imagination, to enter into deep experiences, and those experiences can move us to action.
That leaves me wondering about the stories that we tell. I believe that we only re-tell stories that are meaningful to us, and that that is what makes them sacred. In other words, sacred stories are those that convey a meaningful experience to us. Because of that, we tend to tell them repeatedly. That would seem to leave us with a nice little message.
There’s one more observation that I would make that comes from my own listening to others’ tell their stories. Stories create a vast array of experiences. They all create the experience of a value, an idea, a principle, a perspective on the world. Some of those experiences open us up to broader experiences, to what I would call wisdom, and to insights into how to live that wisdom. Some stories, however, bind us into a certain kind of blindness. They keep our perspectives small and narrow. These kinds of stories often play off of fear and can incite hatred as a way of keeping the fearful thing at bay.
We are at a time in human history perhaps like no other when it comes to story telling. In this modern age of highly developed and widely used technology, we are telling more stories than ever. We still have the essential choice to make: what kinds of stories will we tell? What kinds of stories will we listen to? Whether telling or listening, they create mental experiences, and they propel us to action. Whether leading to wisdom or hatred, both kinds of stories will be sacred to us–they will bear to us something that feels essential, important and vital to meaning in life. Terrorists, after all, tell stories, and have been told stories, and they act on them. They do so with deep intensity. The stories they tell themselves are sacred to them.
The stories we tell are not flimsy pleasures that we can do without. They are what human beings do. How shall we do with our sacred stories?