The Healing Power of Storytelling

We all know the best speakers are good storytellers. It stands to reason that storytelling is equally valuable for teachers, marketers and business leaders. But could this so-called “soft skill” also come in handy for doctors?

Physicians as a group are by training, practice, and perhaps by predisposition, a science-minded, data-driven bunch. “We all want what is best for our patients. We want to provide them with the best evidenced-based medicine, that we have spent years (or, let’s be honest—sometimes just frantic minutes) researching, reviewing, assessing, and filtering, so that they can make informed, relevant, and appropriate decisions about their health,” writes University of Utah family medicine professor Kirsten Stoesser, M.D., in a recent blog post about the power of “a really good story.”

Yet, Stoesser laments, hard data is too often trumped by anecdotes about unproven herbal remedies that “worked for a friend,” or a TV personality’s cautionary tale about vaccines. “Why is it that all the best evidence in the world, piles of convincing statistics, and recommendations from a health care provider can’t beat a story?” she asks.

Family medicine professor Kirsten Stroesser

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Evidence of the power of stories for disseminating information can be found in the first cave paintings. And for those scientific sticklers among us who crave yet more proof: There exist multiple studies documenting how stories affect us physiologically by triggering our emotions, eliciting hormonal responses and lighting up different areas of our brains.

In December 2013, neuroscientists at Emory University showed how reading a story activates the left temporal cortex—neural changes that can persist for several days and that could help explain why stories are so memorable or sticky. The researchers also documented changes in the primary sensory motor region of the brain that perhaps account for why when we read stories we feel like we’re actually there experiencing it along with the characters.

Humans are hard-wired for stories. They tug at our hearts, capture our imaginations and help us filter the flood of information that rains down on us daily—including all those conflicting accounts about the latest wonder drug or new dangers linked to our favorite foods.

Perhaps even more significant for health providers: Stories can motivate people to act. Such was the conclusion drawn by Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate School following experiments wherein he tested the blood of people after reading a story about a father and his terminally ill son. The blood tests showed increased levels of cortisol (associated with stress) and oxytocin, commonly known as the empathy, or human bonding chemical.

Then, members of Zak’s team invited study participants to donate to a children’s cancer charity, and found that those with raised levels of cortisol and oxytocin were more likely to donate.

Knee-jerk reactions to unverifiable and singular anecdotes may not be the wisest way to make important financial or health care decisions. But, as Stoesser provocatively asks, what’s the harm in doctors using stories to convince patients to do what the data already tells us to do? Why not adorn data with narrative, or use juicy metaphors to wet our appetites for dry statistics?

“Numbers, especially unfathomably large numbers, about things and people we don’t know and maybe don’t understand, are easy to discount, to brush aside and ignore,” Stoesser writes. “There is no emotional connection. But tell me a story about one person—get me to emotionally connect to that person, to feel what they feel, to worry that their horrible fate could become mine (or to hope that their cure against all odds could become my good fortune as well), and now I am convinced.”

Stoesser goes on to share a few of her own stories about how she has put storytelling to use in her practice. There’s the time that, in “an act of desperation,” she convinced a pregnant woman to get a flu shot by explaining how a patient of one of her colleagues came down with the flu and spent a week in intensive care. This was a woman who wouldn’t be swayed by advice from the CDC, or scientific assurances that flu shots don’t make you sick and are safe for the fetus.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better way to convince a vasectomy patient to rest for 48 hours than with Stroesser’s gut-churning yarn about the guy who went out and played basketball immediately only to have his “scrotum [swell] up to bigger than the size of a grapefruit.”

Stoesser admits feeling “a bit of guilt” over reverting to storytelling to get her point across, but notes she never shares personal, or identifiable information. Sometimes the ends justify the means, provided no one is harmed. If anything, Stroesser says her stories bring comfort to patients faced with making big, scary decisions.

“By ignoring or discounting these ‘N of 1’ stories and their impact on our patients we are going against human nature. By using them appropriately we can enrich our experiences with our patients, and help to support our facts and numbers in a manner which is much easier understood and remembered,” she says. “And, we may even impact behavior just enough to better the health of our patients (but I have no statistics on that).”

Read more of Stroesser's blog at:

By: Kirsten Stewart

Kirsten Stewart is a senior health writer at University of Utah Health Sciences