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.
- 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.
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.
- Top 10 Most Important Aspects of Storytelling – Learn the most important tips and tricks on how to story tell
- Book Empathy Shows – Learn about shows that promote empathy for K-5 audiences
- Accessing the Muse – Learn how Odds Bodkin uses his muse to tell breathtaking stories
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