“It has long been averred that reading stories “enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.” (Murphy Paul)

On a recent trip to Kenya I had the great privilege of meeting the directors of a school in Burundi that (I’m excited to report) will be joining our pilot program next year. The school is a unique mix of Hutu and Tutsi students – something truly amazing given the violent and terrible history between these two communities. As we sat together hashing out the details for implementing the program in their school, the directors asked me what kind of teacher they should hire to teach the peace heroes, and without a moment’s hesitation, I said: “someone who knows how to tell stories!” Of course, there are many other qualifications and characteristics a teacher needs in order to implement the program well; but since the material revolves around people’s life-stories, the ability to tell stories should, in my opinion, be chief among them. And here’s why.

Most everyone I know likes a good story. It is something we all easily connect to – children and adults alike. But stories do more than simply entertain us. Many studies have revealed how stories can and do operate on us on several different levels, including the intellectual, emotional, social, and – surprisingly – neurological. Groundbreaking research in the area of neurology is showing us that the power of stories comes from their ability to create an experience. More than just being something that takes place in our imagination, science is now proving that as far as the brain is concerned, the experience might as well be our own.

A recent article by Annie Murphy Paul in The New York Times highlighted the connection between neuroscience and fiction, or the ways in which stories affect our brain. Words, it turns out, are not limited to the word-processing areas of our brain, but can – depending on the word itself – stimulate different areas in the brain. For example, words associated with smell or with texture light up the sensory cortex of the brain, even if there is no tangible or physical sensation accompanying the word. In experiments recently conducted, when people read the word “perfume” their brain lit up in exactly the same way it would if they simply got a whiff of perfume; similarly, when people read metaphors like “leathery hands” or “velvety voice,” their brain lit up in exactly the same way it would if they were feeling the leathery hands or hearing the velvety voice. It seems, writes Murphy Paul, that the brain “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

When brought into the realm of words as narrative, the implications of this latest research are staggering, for the indication is that words used to tell a story can trigger our sensory brain in the same way that the real experiences being told in the story would. There is something very powerful in the idea that someone else’s experience can become our own simply by reading about it. Dr. Keith Oatley, professor of Cognitive Psychology at University of Toronto, takes this a step further when he writes that stories “go beyond simulating reality” by giving readers “an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings” (qtd. in Murphy Paul). It seems that neuroscience is now confirming what many have always intuitively felt: that stories enable us both to see and to experience things from another person’s perspective. And since putting ourselves in someone else’s story, or in someone else’s shoes, is one of the key characteristics of empathy, it can be said (verifiably!) that stories are (among other things) the birthplace of empathy. Could it be, then, that by teaching our children through stories we are actually growing and developing their ability to empathize with others in ways that few other disciplines are able to do?

But it is more than that. Someone has said that stories have an almost otherworldly power to transform us. The peace heroes’ stories are what draw students in, but what has the potential to actually change them is the power of these stories to create an experience. You see, according to neuroscience, when students are transported into the peace heroes’ stories, they also become those peace heroes themselves. For a moment, they not only see the world from a different perspective, but also feel the impact of the peace heroes’ choices in that specific historical context. Thus the stories they learn give students an unparalleled opportunity not only to empathize with other people, but also to experience for themselves what it’s like to be an agent of change. And this, in turn, enables them to return to their own reality with renewed vision – and inspiration!

In other words, in the context of the Peace Heroes program, there is a direct correlation between stories and social action. Of course, this is precisely what we hope will happen in schools where the program is being taught – that it will enable students to become peace heroes themselves, just like the ones they are learning about. And I truly believe that one of the program’s greatest strengths is that it uses stories to try and bring this message home. For stories invite us “to concern ourselves with the fates of others like ourselves, attaching ourselves to them both by sympathetic friendship and by empathetic identification. When, then, we are invited at the close to think what we shall do, our natural response will be, if we have read well, to do unto other ordinary men and women as to ourselves” (Nussbaum 894).

This is why it is so essential to have teachers who know how to tell a good story. For it is in the telling that the students’ hearts and minds can be transformed. And it is in the telling that new peace heroes are formed.

Murphy Paul, Annie. “Your Brain on Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Mar. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
Nussbaum, Martha. “The Literary Imagination in Public Life.” New Literary History 22.4 (Autumn 1991): 887-910. JSTOR. 19 Jan. 2017.