The Power of Story: Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Dr Lewis Mehl-Madrona with Barbara Mainguy of the Coyote Institute for Studies of Change and Transformation.

In his interesting book Healing the Mind Though the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry, Dr Lewis Mehl-Madrona, who I hold in very high regard, emphasises the importance of story. In this blog,  I’m going to describe some of his reflections about story (pp. 2 – 4).

Stories help us develop empathy. They allow us understand another person’s world from their perspective. Stories give us unique access to the inner lives and motivations of others. They contain so much more information than we can convey in the statement of facts.

Stories give cognitive and emotional significance to experience. ‘Stories are amusing, memorable, and absorbing; they are also instructive, informative and orienting… We construct and negotiate our social identity through the stories we tell other people (and through the stories that then get repeated about us). Stories assist us in developing a moral sense, as they give moral weight and existential significance to actions and events.’

Stories enhance our creativity and help us think beyond the here and now. Stories ‘give us new vantage points from which to contemplate the possible and eventually create it. They stimulate our imagination and allow us to see alternatives. Without story, our lives and environments would be hideously drab and uninteresting.’

Stories keep us connected in social networks, which build and shape our brain. Our brain maps our social world as we explore and interpret it. ‘These social maps, which consist of stories that we have constructed about our experiences, guide our action in the world. By storing information about our social world in narrative form, we are able to quickly assess the motivation of others, their intent, how they make us feel, their status in our social hierarchy, their feelings about us, the context of the situation, and what behaviors would be considered normative.’

Stories unlock the mysteries of psychophysical suffering that declarative facts cannot reveal. ‘Social life is the performance of stories. Physiological life is the consequence of the performance of those stories.’

I particularly like the following short paragraph.

‘Stories are “social neurotransmitters.” Stories facilitate communication between humans in the same way that neurotransmitters facilitate transmission between neurones. People are neurons in a social brain.’ (p. 13)

This last paragraph sort of bridges two aspects of my career. I spent the first 25 years of my career as a neuroscientist studying neurotransmitters, aiming to help create a better understanding of the brain that would lead to improved ways of helping people overcome neurological and mental health problems, as well as addiction.

Today, I use stories to empower and connect people to facilitate the healing of trauma and its consequences (mental health problems and addiction).

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