The Impact of Storytelling on Kids’ Brains

Storytelling stokes creativity in children


by Gavin Bodkin

The art of storytelling is inherently human, and it’s no wonder children gravitate to it like butterflies to flowers. It has fascinated children’s minds for thousands of years. Most of us view it with an almost fantastical perception, which tracks considering it has been used as a tool to stimulate the imagination of listeners. If you have ever witnessed a child’s face while a fairy tale is being told, you’ll have all the proof you need. But what is going on in children’s brains while they are experiencing storytelling? Can it be used to positively influence brain development? This article will examine how storytelling effects children’s brains and what implications that has on learning and brain health.


Key Takeaways:


  • The art of storytelling has been associated with increased prefrontal blood flow when compared to reading, which implies increased brain stimulation.
  • Storytelling can help support cognitive skills like problem solving in children. Active listening lets children effortlessly problem solve, connecting characters to plot events in an attempt to organize the information they are being presented.
  • Empathy and social awareness are key developmental advantages of storytelling. Children are able to reference social frameworks that are presented in storytelling, which can fortify their understanding of right and wrong.
  • Storytelling has been linked to a reduction in children’s physical and psychological stress. It can produces oxytocin and reduces cortisol, which are used as biomarkers to indicate a decrease in stress and pain in a short amount of time.


What is Storytelling?


Storytelling is the interactive communication of thoughts and ideas to reveal a narrative created by one’s imagination. This is typically achieved through speech and music from a storyteller to an audience. It has had a dramatic effect over the development of humans by sparking the imagination of deep thinkers, reinforcing narratives to preserve culture, and to generally entertain audiences. While there are more modernized forms of storytelling, the original and most popular form is spoken-word storytelling.


Why is Storytelling Important?


The imagination is responsive for the world’s most original thoughts. From the conception of the first spear designed to penetrate the hide of a mammoth, to the Wright brother’s development of the first airplane, the imagination has been the driving force that has turned fantasy into reality. It is our guidebook on how to take unlike concepts and combine them to create something new.


In the digital age, our imaginations are at risk of becoming atrophied by the ubiquity of screens, pictures, and the general outsourcing of them to AI. The imagination requires only a few ingredients to produce mental imagery, namely words, music, and meaning. If we are already given the imagery, we are limiting our capacities to produce new ideas, which is particularly important when considering children’s brains and their development.


How Does Storytelling Affect Children’s Brains?


Storytelling affects children’s brains in a myriad of ways – both short-term and long-term. There have been countless studies performed on the benefits of storytelling on the brain including cognitive, creative, emotional, memory, and even studies on family bonding. Some of the studies suggest storytelling can act almost as a superpower. In aggregate, all of the evidence points to the same conclusion – storytelling is beneficial to childhood brain development.




Children’s enhanced cognition has been linked to the effects of storytelling in several cognitive studies. Yabe et. al. 2018 compared children’s brain pre-frontal blood flow levels in two scenarios. A group of 21 children (age 4-11) were exposed to a series of stories told by an experienced storyteller. Then, the same group of children were presented with a series of picture books. Over the sessions, the blood flow increased in the pre-frontal areas of the children’s brains when exposed to storytelling and decreased when exposed to picture-book readings. This suggests that brain activity increased over the course of the experiments as children were working through the spoken narratives.


While it’s always difficult to attribute causality to the experiment considering dependent variables that might exist, the results were conclusive. Cortical areas of the brain are stimulated more by storytelling than by picture book reading (this is also consistent with previous literature on the topic). This raises the natural question, why?


Children’s brains undergo more creative rigor when they have to imagine for themselves. The leading theory is that storytelling engages the imagination of the listener, challenging them to create mental imagery to conceive the story. It also requires them to actively project what might happen in the future to continue to make sense of the story. When presented with visual imagery, a more passive interaction with the information occurs, leading to less stimulation and lower brain activity.


Problem Solving


Being able to navigate complex situations requires an important skillset. Whether it be creative, analytical, theoretical, or emotional in nature, problem solving is vital for brain development for any person. Children must be exposed to situations with complex nuance to learn how to determine cause and effect, how to use reason with imagination, and ultimately how to interpret right from wrong. “The process of improvised storytelling and role-playing helps children anticipate possible situations and outcomes and prompts their visions of alternative endings and solutions.” (Charney 2002; Worth 2008). Worth goes on to argue that storytelling helps to develop “narrative reasoning”, which helps us make sense of our own personal lives and the world around us. It isn’t enough to simply show or tell children how to solve a problem. They have to experience the situation for themselves to go through the mental process subjectively. Storytelling is an approach that achieves this through an objective lens.




Storytelling has also been used to enhance children’s language development. Children are able to comprehend spoken word stories by listening to intonation and cadences and by seeing gestures and facial expressions. There is simply more information that the child is able to draw from to form an idea of what a word, phrase, or story might mean. Using storytelling to fortify language can not only expand vocabulary and develop comprehension, it can be used to broaden children’s communication and interpersonal skills overall.


In a 2004 pilot study, a group of researchers investigated the language development of preschool children when exposed to storytelling. There was a marked improvement in grammar, vocabulary, length of utterance, and sentence formation when subjected to storytelling. Furthermore, the study suggests, “The use of storytelling with young children supports early literacy development and expands the creative literacy potential in young children.” (Speaker et. al. 2004). By witnessing storytelling, creative and predictive interaction is demanded from the listener, building synaptic networks of understanding, especially in young children’s brains.




“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – R.M. White


Any parent knows that children can lack perspective, especially after hours of working, cleaning, cooking, and playing. When was the last time you heard a child say, “thank you for playing with me!” It’s a rarity indeed, but it’s not their fault. Children don’t typically have frames of reference that allow them to feel appreciation or empathy for their parents, grandparents, or other close family members unless they are exposed to situations they can identify with.


A study was conducted that exposed children to oral storytelling to understand their perspectives on situations in a library setting. In the study, elementary school students were offered stories via oral storytelling and then interviewed afterwards to gain access to their psychosocial perspectives. The study documented “the benefits of oral storytelling to children in relation to a complex of processes tied to the opportunities afforded by oral storytelling for self-expression, identification with story characters, empathic understanding of self and others and bi-directional communication.” (Hibbin 2016). There are a number of past studies that reinforce this notion over the topic’s empirical history, all with unequivocal findings even when compared to reading. Somehow the act of listening, viewing, and actively thinking connects children to emotionally weighted concepts. They are able to place themselves in the shoes of characters, which forms a sense of identity and emotional understanding.


Pain and Stress


Seeing children in pain and stress can be overwhelming for all parties involved. Whether a hospitalized child undergoing treatment, or a child being bullied, the psychological effects can be devastating. This more controversial topic involving child pain and stress has started to become more clear with technological advancements in biomarker reading.


A recent study in 2021 looked at the effects of storytelling in hospitalized children. Eighty one children were involved with symptoms most commonly stemming from asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia. Children were exposed to storytelling and riddles on separate occasions, and levels of oxytocin and cortisol were measured before and after each session. The results found that “compared with an active control condition, one storytelling session with hospitalized children leads to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts during a free-association task” (Brockington et. al. 2021). Storytelling can be used as a therapeutic tool to enhance the quality of life of children who are suffering. The researchers hypothesized that this is due to the transporting effect storytelling has on children’s minds. While these have obvious short-term benefits, longer-term benefits include the ability to reframe experiences, regulate mood, and broaden perspective.


Storytelling is a powerful tool, and goes far beyond being a mere form of entertainment. While we might consider storytelling an archaic form of record-keeping and fireside fun, it has practical and lasting cognitive and social benefits, especially for children.


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Photo Credit:

<a href=””>Image by pikisuperstar</a> on Freepik

Tchaikovsky in the Pandemic

I just finished listening to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto #1 in my kitchen, while recovering from a day of hard physical work cleaning out my garage and carting off the last leaves of autumn here in New Hampshire. In my town of Bradford, if you don’t turn on your front porch light this Halloween, trick or treaters will not ring your doorbell. We’re doing that this year, Mil and I. We’re going to light the wood stoves and lay low. Just today I put on and took off my mask numerous times, a task almost as tiring as taking moldy old sleeping bags to the dump.

A young woman (violinist Alena Baeva) was the soloist for the concerto, and she was note perfect and found yet a few new subtleties in performing this beloved and well-worn piece.

Of course, this was a pre-Covid performance. It was a scene of happy aesthetes assembled together in a concert hall somewhere, put up on YouTube. No masks. Everyone breathing the collective air normally. A roaring applause at the end, everyone standing up in joy, just having been transported.

All this will come back. It really will. We just have to hang in there a little while longer.

That’s because our beloved scientists have almost figured out the bioinformatics on this virus. Just as breathlessly as I listened to this concerto, I await that day. It’s just around the corner.

—Odds Bodkin

Can’t Go Out? Going a Little Stir Crazy with Your Kids?

Well, there are always Odds Bodkin stories to free your child’s mind. The first few seconds are usually enough to engage their attention, even children accustomed to a constant flow of visual stimuli like TV or video games. Odds’ stories are for kids 4 and up. There are many age-appropriate categories.

To buy Odds Bodkin’s audio stories as downloads, you don’t have to go out, which is a good thing nowadays. Instead, just visit his online shop, purchase what interests you, and download to your device. The mp3s are ready to play. Nature stories. Fairy tales. Viking myths. Greek mythology. From two-minute tales to spoken-word epics that last for hours. All told with characters, music and a legendary joie de vivre, which we all need around now.

Joie de vivre. That’s French for “the joy of life.”

Find out more here.




Studies warn nowadays that increasing numbers of young kids are entering school without deep trust in an adult figure. Any adult figure. You can blame it on family breakup, drugs, poverty, or just frenetic modern life in general, I suppose, because even in affluent families, plenty of kids have to compete with their parents’ smartphones to get their attention.

Whatever the causes, Story Preservation Initiative (SPI) has decided that my audio stories for young kids might help by providing a consistent and trusted voice in their lives.

I’m honored and delighted to have my works viewed in this way, and to be part of a school-based program like SPI’s.




Do Silicon Valley Execs Keep Their Kids Away From Screens? Yes.

Why do Silicon Valley executives raise their children technology-free? This headline from The Guardian says it all: TABLETS OUT, IMAGINATION IN: THE SCHOOLS THAT SHUN TECHNOLOGY.

They do it because they want their kids to be imaginative and mentally healthy, basically. Looking out over the wasteland of anger, narcissism, teen suicides, obesity and incivility that social media networks have caused in young lives recently, many of these tech wizards are scared for their own kids.

Like King Midas, everything they touched has turned to gold. But don’t forget the old story: When King Midas touches his own daughter, whom he loves, she turns to gold, too. That’s the end of her.

Digital Addiction begins with kids interacting with screens. The colorful, always-changing worlds they find are so much fun that when they’re suddenly without their screens and look up to see the real world around them, it simply moves too slowly. It’s boring. This causes a kind of free-floating, stimulation-seeking depression.

Down through the ages, kids engaged in creative play with toys and role-playing, attempting to do what grownups did, but in miniature. It has always been this way. But not now, not in the dopamine-laden world of video games and social networks. Not unless the kids’ lives are balanced by getting them away from these devices.

It’s ironic. Now that the digital masters of the universe are having families, too, they realize this, smart as they are. Heck, they built these things to be addictive. And yes, they love their kids, too.

So what is the indispensable skill they want their children to develop at these very expensive, very selective kindergartens and elementary schools where less is more?


What grows imagination best?

Creative outdoor play, kids playing with kids, without any adults around.

If that’s not possible, what’s the next best thing?


As Einstein said, “If you want your child to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.”

Wait a moment, you might say. Odds Bodkin is using digital media at the moment. Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?

Well, no.

That’s because my imagination developed long ago, when I was a kid, playing outside all day, and then, after coming back home, listening to my dad tell me stories.

BUSINESS INSIDER article for more






Hard-Hitting Adult Storytelling Sunday July 29th in New Hampshire

Hard-Hitting Adult Storytelling Sunday July 29th in New Hampshire

If you want to grab some elemental Greek mythology, tragic and beautiful, told for adults, mark your calendar for Sunday, July 29th. The tale you’ll hear, much like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, won the hearts of 200 convicts in a California prison one afternoon, so much so that I actually signed autographs on scraps of paper and napkins afterwards for a half an hour. As an audio, this 100-minute epic won the national Golden Headset Award from Audiofile Magazine, among other awards.

With so much violence afoot in our culture today, it’s more relevant than ever.

It’s called Hercules in Hell, and it just might break your heart.

I’ll be performing it with my 12-string guitar at 7:00 pm at the Riverwalk Music Bar in Nashua, New Hampshire on Sunday evening in two weeks’ time. One of the more interesting features of this work, other than the full, moment-to-moment guitar score, is that unlike in most of my storytellings, I don’t narrate. I never appear. Only Hercules does.

Tickets are $13 in advance for good seating, and $13 at the door.






Fans of storytelling have discovered Odds Bodkin’s EPIC DRIVE, the product that contains all this master storyteller’s musical spoken-word works. From adventure epics to titles for young children, the flash drive, loaded with mp3s and cover art, arrives in the mail. Plug it in and load eighteen widely varying titles, from The Odyssey for teens to The Little Proto Trilogy for young kids.

Meaningful, ethical stories with a plus: original music, character voices and vivid vocal effects!

Support creativity and mental health in your family by listening together and discussing these classic stories. Kids never forget. Get yours today.

THE EPIC DRIVE: All Odds Bodkin’s Stories!



A school principal wrote me recently, commenting on GOLDEN RULE, my storytelling assembly for elementary kids. Sure, I tell stories for adults, but it’s close to my heart, this empathy issue. Kids raised without notions of civility and simple human kindness toward others––no matter what somebody else looks like or where they come from––just makes the bullies feel that power. In the long run, though, it hurts them just as much.

Although many Americans follow faith traditions, just as many don’t these days, and with that change has come a loss of religious teaching stories, traditionally told to kids by adults in their lives. In their absence and in the presence of cynical cartoons and visual games, the fabric of civility has worn thin in lots of children. It’s not their fault. They’re kids. They’re not born civil; they need to be taught why it’s important.

Be kind. Treat others honorably. Yes, you can say those things to kids, but nothing penetrates the cruelty they see in media like a spoken-world story told by an adult. Instead of saying “do this,” a good Golden Rule story simply offers a lesson about power and its uses. Kids can’t help but internalize its impact because they’ve been opened up. They’ve been opened up because their minds are overwhelmed. The boys. The girls. The ADHD kids, all attentive. With the voices, music and wild sounds, the storytelling is too evanescent for them to ignore.

At a public school in Massachusetts the other day, my young audience looked like the United Nations. Kids from everywhere. Never knowing what religions, if any, their families practice at home, I tell stories from non-religious wisdom traditions. Folktales from Japan, Ireland, Africa, India and Italy. And Aesop’s Fables from ancient Greece, which is about all I can fit into an hour. But I always ask the kids the same questions about them afterwards, and about the Golden Rule.

And if they’ve never heard “Treat others the way you would like to be treated” before they’ve attended a GOLDEN RULE assembly, they certainly know it by the time it’s over.

If kids don’t get these kinds of stories from adults in America when they’re young, stories that buoy up their best angels and sink into their souls, when they get to high school, more and more of them are so fragile and full of violence that they misuse their power and end up thinking it’s okay to bring guns to class, and all to often these days, in the ultimate act of bullying, to use them.


–Odds Bodkin



A Stolen Ring and an Unwanted Kiss

An unsophisticated youth out in the world for the first time, Percival comes upon a young woman in a knight’s pavilion. His mother’s words come into the country boy’s mind, “If a lady gives you a kiss, ‘tis a great honor. If she gives you a ring, ‘tis a double honor.”

Stupidly, he forces her to kiss him and pulls off her wedding ring, thinking he’s now been honored. Instead, he’s ruined her life, although he does not know it. Not until much later in the epic, when he meets her again with her angry husband (he thinks she’s been unfaithful), does Percival return the ring and confess what he’s done.

If modern boys do not know how to treat women with courtesy, perhaps they haven’t yet heard The Hidden Grail: Sir Percival and the Fisher King, Odds Bodkin’s 90-minute Arthurian tale about chivalry.

Billboard writes “one of the best spoken-word stories we’ve ever heard.” The reviewers were a mother/daughter team.

Get it here or as part of the $99 download special at Odds Bodkin’s Shop.



“Smartphone dystopia” is a term recently coined by Google engineers who now send their young kids to elite Silicon Valley schools that ban smartphones and iPads. Read about that here.

To completely escape smartphone dystopia, at least for an hour, tonight I’ll be performing a story show, THE HARVEST: Tales of the Land at 6 pm in Gilford, NH for the Belknap County Farm Bureau. My audience: farmers. Three disarming and insightful adult stories, with echoes of the Monsanto vs organics war. It’s a private function.

However, Sunday night’s show at 7 pm is public. HEARTPOUNDERS: Halloween Tales of Horror unfolds at the Riverwalk Music Bar in Nashua, NH. Composed of the grittiest, most unsettling supernatural tales I know, the show includes mythic material from New England, Russia, China and other far flung places. It also explores Samhain, the old Celtic celebration, and how it was turned into All Hallow’s Eve by the Church during the conversion centuries following St. Patrick’s and others’ arrivals among the Druid pagan sacrificers of Northern Europe.

Tickets are $10 in advance, $13 at the door.

You’ll have a chance to enjoy your natural imagination at work, without a single “Like” button.

Have a great weekend!


Thanatos was the ancient Greek god of death. He seldom made an appearance in person. If you think about it, that makes sense. He only shows up when there’s no time left to tell a story about him.

As the son of Night and Darkness, his siblings were Old Age, Deception, Blame, Suffering, Doom, Strife, Retribution and Atropos, a goddess of death herself. She’s the root of our modern word “atrophy.”

As you can sense by his mythical brothers and sisters (the Greek gods were personifications of various human conditions) Thanatos normally has to do with death in old age. Old people die when their times come. That’s the way of nature.

But a new Digital Thanatos Ethic has appeared among teens. Witness the young Massachusetts girl who was just convicted of urging her depressed boyfriend to kill himself in his monoxide-filled truck. Witness the tens of thousands of other young girls who are cutting themselves, along with the millions of boys who worship all-powerful killer monsters they inhabit inside avatars, living a false heroism that has nothing to do with the real world around them.

“The other day I put up a self-harm picture,” she says. “I was alone and in a dark place. […] Of course, nobody would help, but posting it boosted my confidence a little; finding it buried in amongst all the other self-harm posts reminded me I’m not alone.” Full article in The Guardian.

Sites like these where depressed teens commiserate and urge each other to suicide and self-harm are appearing on the web like poisonous mushrooms. Depression blogs. Teen suicides on Facebook Live. Anorexia-promotion sites. This is a new species of digital connection so unnatural, so profoundly unhealthy, that parents and policymakers should take notice and shut these sites down, or at least get their kids away from them. And from cynical, exploitative TV shows that explore and justify them.

As for First Amendment considerations, media like this is the slow-moving equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Loneliness is one thing. But lonely kids who never meet each other in person gathering together online to compare ways to hurt themselves?

Even in an utterly secular world, that’s just not right. It’s a digital disease.