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.


Read More



Photo Credit:

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

Huddle Around the Zoom Fire Sunday Night for Beowulf

With 12-string guitar and Celtic harp, character voices and sound effects, master storyteller Odds Bodkin will perform his classic tale, BEOWULF: THE ONLY ONE, for adults this Sunday night at 5 pm EST. The tale contains mayhem and violence and is not recommended for children.

Shorn of its heraldic side stories, Bodkin’s version of Beowulf cleaves closely to the original thousand-year-old story of a thane who rescues an aged king from monsters that attack his hall. Filled with striking scenes and plenty of humor, the story translates vividly over Zoom.


Tickets are $25






This performance is sponsored by Grendel’s Den.


THE HERCULES CHRONICLES: The Glory of Hera? No, Just the Opposite

“Herakles” translates to “the glory of Hera”, an ironic name indeed for the hero who came to be known as Hercules, since the Queen of Olympus does everything in her power to ruin his life. As Hercules relates it in Odds Bodkin’s live story performance HERCULES IN HELL, when Hera hears that Zeus, her philandering husband, has fathered yet another child with a mortal woman, her jealousy knows no bounds. She conceives an animus for Hercules that will last his entire lifetime.

During her first attempt at his murder, when he’s an infant, she sends two serpents to bite him in his cradle, but instead, just by playing with them, the young demigod strangles them.

None too pleased, but biding her time, Hera waits until Hercules is married with a young family; he’s a prince on his way to becoming king. She then sends what Hercules calls “a storm of blood”, a madness that tears out his senses and plunges him into hallucinations. Attacking him from all sides come monsters, lions, centaurs and enemies, and so in his survival rage he fights back, destroying them all.

It’s only after the madness passes that he finds his wife and children dead at his feet. Their blood is on his hands. He can’t remember doing it. Always too strong, he has now murdered those he loves most. Drowning in guilt and unaware that Hera sent the madness, Hercules fears the insanity will return, and so he flees to the wilderness to live on squirrels and berries, filthy in his solitude.

Still, no matter where he is, the guilt eats at his soul. He cannot sleep. His dead family appears in his dreams every night. Finally, he journeys to the Oracle of Delphi and learns of his unwelcome fate. Zeus and the Fates have decreed that until he completes Labors for the King of Mycenae, Hercules will never be free of his guilt.

And so he journeys to the Court of King Eurystheus of Mycenae, puts himself under the thumb of his weak cousin, and his Labors begin.

Initially, Zeus and the Fates decreed ten labors, but because Eurystheus finds reasons to deny two of them, they end up twelve.



Join Odds Bodkin via Zoom on Sunday, Oct 18 at 5 pm EST for his epic telling of the life story of Hercules. The camera is up close and the sound and video are HD, so you can watch the instrumental work on 12-string guitar as a master storyteller enacts his characters.

A solid and entertaining lesson in epic Greek mythology, one you’ll never forget. Not recommended for children under 12.



Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020 at 5 pm on Zoom

Tickets: $15

An Odds Bodkin Concert Anywhere on Earth

As a one-man show, Master Storyteller Odds Bodkin has never needed fancy costumes and backup dancers, since they’d only get in the way of audience imagination. Because he’s a character actor, he doesn’t need fellow thespians to bring a story to life. Backup musicians aren’t necessary either; he plays his own music live. And since he doesn’t wear makeup, he looks the same as always. Dressed in black. Beard. Bushy eyebrows.

That’s why in his live Zoom concerts, the only difference is that everyone has a front row seat.

Got a group of bored adults from your company working from home? Book an evening performance of BEOWULF: THE ONLY ONE or ODIN AND THOR BATTLE THE FROST GIANTS.

Got school kids scattered to their homes? Book a GOLDEN RULE: WORLD STORIES ABOUT EMPATHY or FAIRY FOLKS AND OLD OAKS performance for up to 1, 000 of them. It will be live, just for them, some time in the morning or afternoon.

Recently DigBoston wrote about Odds’ “preternatural ability to create characters with an array of simply inspired voices.”

He also offers HEARTPOUNDERS: DARK TALES OF THE SUPERNATURAL shows, as if these times weren’t dark enough.

To learn how to create a large group storytelling event, all while social distancing, inquire here.


Shiva, Parvati, Yudisthira, Ganesha, Bhima, Arjuna and a Faithful Dog in Mahabharata Tales for Adults

Although the princes of two families grew up as demigods together, they have always competed for rulership of the city of Hastinapur. Each armed with fantastical powers, the Kurus and the Pandava brothers fight with magical mantras as much as with weapons. They’re not above trickery and murder. And it is their sweeping tale, arcing across history, bejeweled with hundreds of stories-within-stories, that is The Mahabharata.

When I first read it, I was stunned by the particle weapons and cluster bombs the characters wielded–this in a book created 2,500 years ago. I was also amazed by the immense floating cities. And by the Himalayan forests where emeralds were the leaves. And by the epic journeys encountering beings of all kinds. And by the Hindu gods especially, visiting humans like aunts and uncles on vacation from heaven.

It reminded me of Homer’s Iliad, and how the Greek gods whisked warriors away from death on the Trojan plain.

It’s a mythic storyteller’s dream, this great epic. And with my 12-string guitars and harp tuned to the world of Indian ragas, I’ll scratch The Mahabharata’s surface on Sunday, March 29th at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA.

If you’re of Indian descent, please do come. You’ll enjoy it. It is highly honorable and Indian folks in Chicago loved it.

This fourth Grendel’s Den winter season has been a series of sell-out shows, and India’s Ancients: Tales from the Mahabharata and Beyond is the performance that fans voted for, out of a field of four adult tellings, to be the final one.

So this is the one I’m preparing for.

Some of the finest, most wondrous stories I’ve ever come across.




MARCH 29, 2020 AT 5:30 PM













The wastrel prince who breaks a deep law of respect and must flee his kingdom.

The daughter of an apostate water mage who was forbidden to father a child, yet here she is.

The Water Mage’s Daughter. A 13,000 line epic in rhyming verse. A love story. A tale that explores the physics of magic.

All in a novel that rhymes in four different ways.



Buy it now. PDF: $29.95

512 pages

2.1MB PDF (e-Book)

Glossary of Rare Words 623 K (e-Book)


It’s no fun to meet Death on the road, especially when you’re not anywhere near dying. No, you’re quite healthy and about to become a new father. Death–who was after you anyway–upon hearing there’s a baby soon to be born, suddenly becomes reasonable. He offers you a deal. If you agree, Death will become your son’s godfather.

Only your son–and no one else–once he’s grown, will be able to see his godfather standing at the foot of the bed whenever a patient is about to die.

That’s how your son becomes an infallible doctor.

He’s never wrong, but once he becomes famous for knowing who will live and who will die, when a beautiful girl on her deathbed enters the picture, all bets are off.

The Infallible Doctor is a gentle, light-hearted tale from Latvia told with the Celtic harp. It’s dark and deathly, but it’s funny as hell and has a happy ending, unlike all the other stories in Odds Bodkin’s HEARTPOUNDERS II storytelling concert performance.

Odds Bodkin’s tales will give children nightmares, frankly, and the artist would prefer that, since he tells stories to children often, that they not be exposed to these stories. Please do not bring them.

Acoustic music accompanies each story.


Heartpounders II

Friday, Oct. 18, 2019 at 7 pm

Warner Town Hall

Warner, New Hampshire

TICKETS $10 members, $15 non-members

A Supercontinent Led Me to this Ancient Greek Myth

Pangea—you’ve heard of it. The ancient supercontinent of the Late Triassic that slowly broke apart into the continents we have today. Geologists have successfully matched so many rock formations at the edges of so many modern continents that they’ve reverse-engineered the rock patchwork puzzle all the way back to Pangea, or “All Earth.”

A few hundred million years of continents drifting an inch a year.

While looking at reconstruction maps of these long-lost continents, I noticed that scientists had named the ancient oceans around them with names like the Rheic Ocean, the Iapetus Ocean and the Tethys Ocean.

Rhea. Iapetus. Tethys. These were names I’d not heard.

A little googling revealed that they were Titans from ancient Greek mythology, first named by a poet, Hesiod, around 700 B.C. in a work called Theogony, or “Birth of the Gods.”

A little unclear about who the Titans were exactly (other than evil giants in Hollywood movies) and what if anything they had to do with the Greek gods, I found a translation of Theogony and lo, realized I’d come upon the Greek genesis story, like Adam and Eve in the Bible.

The story of Gaia and her Titan children, the builders of the earth. At least in the Greek imagination.

Here, ten years later, Fall of the Titans is one of my favorite epic tales to perform. The character voices are wild. The scenes of origins are exciting and revelatory and fun to enact. And as always with my tales, I’ve composed a score for it on 12-string guitar.

Since it usually takes me ten years of telling such a story to be ready to record it, I’m ripe for the plucking now, and so will be recording Fall of the Titans live at Grendel’s Den on Harvard Square this coming Sunday, March 24th at 5 pm.

If you’d like to be part of this live recording event, grab a ticket and I’ll see you there!




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.