Some nights when I’m putting my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to bed, she asks me to tell her the 'owl story'. It’s a very short story about a time when I was driving late at night and accidentally bumped into a snowy owl with my car. The owl had been standing the the middle of the road, and jumped up in the air as I sped around a corner. I was able to slow down before it hit my windshield, so it had been a relatively light bump. When I stopped my car to get out and look for the giant white bird, it was gone. I tell my daughter that the owl probably flew back into the forest to be with its friends. My daughter loves the 'owl story' and asks for it again and again.
One night when she asked for this story, I tried an experiment, and subtracted much of its usual narrative structure. I talked about driving in a more general sense, about the concept of a speed limit, and about how cars that are going too fast will sometimes hit animals. I told her about the habits of nocturnal species like owls, and about snowy owl migration patterns. As I had predicted, she quickly lost interest, and eventually interrupted me. She wanted the story, not a list of facts.
Why does my toddler already prefer stories to non-stories? Some would say that, because she’s human, this preference is built into her DNA. Have humans evolved as a storytelling species? If so, why? Why would storytelling have helped us survive and reproduce in our ancestral environment?
So far this blog has been about great stories and how they work. Each blogpost has focused on a craft element of a story that we love. But with winter in the air, we’ve decided to open up "Inside Story" to discussions of storytelling in a broader sense. We will still write about great stories and how they work, but instead of solely focusing on craft, we will also write about the role these stories take on in our lives and the world. With that in mind, this week I came across some articles about the use of stories in medicine, and I’ll share some of those findings with you here.
Because stories are the medium by which we express and absorb meaning, they can have a healing quality. It’s not surprising that storytelling is becoming more widely used in medicine, especially in end-of-life care, where the need for meaning-making tends to spike, the focus of care is less curative and more palliative, and the physical, psychosocial, emotional, and existential aspects of wellness are viewed in a more integrative way.