Even before language, humans communicated through storytelling to teach, inspire, influence, and share awareness of the world—and it continues to expand our minds today.
by Phil Maffetone
Humans have been storytelling from the beginning. Like all animals, sound, through music, was the mode. Humans used their unique songs to communicate, find the best mates, protect family, and share. Sounds were a key feature of storytelling. And, not unlike today, simple posturing and facial expressions, even silence, also had a role in the stories. Over time, all the arts would come to play a part in this integral form of communication.
Storytelling not only helps people make special connections with each other, but it also evokes healthy changes within our individual brains. It can increase communication between previously unconnected neurons to improve memory, understanding, awareness, and knowledge—and creativity. The engaging mind manages it all, a reason why storytelling in all its forms is such a powerful brain-body therapy. It helped facilitate our early ancestors to develop amazingly creative and intelligent minds and bodies.
While the most basic human sounds led to more complexity and animation, our early music ultimately helped develop verbal language, as shared with our children through bedtime stories, games and rhymes. Lyrics are an integral part of storytelling, especially with powerful words that can incite another person’s mind to experience something very intense, or for the first time.
Call them poems, lyrical songs, social statements, or other communiques, most are various forms of sharing, of storytelling. They’re used in all artforms, including the art of science. Business too uses storytelling in various ways (and often deceptively for marketing). Before becoming a singer-songwriter, my storytelling skills were honed as a clinician to better communicate with patients and to teach other practitioners.
In a real sense, the earliest human songs were the roots of folk music. With the potential to enlist more of our brain areas, music grew over time into many different forms of expression, especially with expanding instrumentation. Evolving from oral tradition, folk and folk-rock is often analogous with storytelling. However, most music genres can play this part, even without lyrics when the listener can imagine the storyline.
Today, we still speak—or sing—stories to share a bit of ourselves with the world. It’s a creative expression of a short story, or perhaps parts of a very long one. It’s a way to touch others and be touched back. Prolific storytellers typically express their many different natural personalities throughout the course of their journeys.
While songs are entertaining, they can also influence behavior and attitudes, preserve information for future generations and broadcast the likes and dislikes of what’s happening in the world, or within us. As such, they can encourage healthy change.
Unlike many other sensory inputs, music can turn-on most of our brain. Add storytelling and the mind is further alerted. If we play music or dance, additional neuronal activities are recruited. Video enlists additional areas of our visual centers, dramatically incorporating extra connections to expand the mind even more.
Storytelling songs merge a deep emotional experience between singer and listener—their alpha brain waves can even synchronize. Enlisting auditory and visual stimuli heightens our senses allowing hormones to spark memories, emotions, and empathy from start to finish. These are key reasons why music is used in movies, advertising, retail locals, and in other places where strong mental and emotional connections can be made. And its why music videos became so popular—they can drive the delivery of a storytelling song better than the audio-only version. A live, intimate music performance can have the same or more power.
Author Jonathan Gottschall (The Storytelling Animal) wrote: “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
So, the science of storytelling is simple: as an artform, it’s good for our brains.
Regardless of format, we sing and hear songs the same way as our ancestors did, with heartfelt emotion and sincerity that can bring out our inner child.
My storytelling music videos are here.
Info on live performances here.
Related article: “Brain Gig—Creative expression is human nature in action”