Storytelling Is a Conduit for Intergenerational Learning

Why stories are critical to brain development.

Posted Sep 19, 2016

Lorena Fernandez/123RF
Source: Lorena Fernandez/123RF

Have you shared a well-told story with a teen or grandchild lately? The result could be transformative for both of you!

Stories help us see the world in new and different ways, and move us toward action. At their most basic level, stories connect people’s brains in ways that help them co-create new stories— stories that transform individuals and society over time. Stories touch us because they allow us to connect to other people’s joy, pain, and varied life experiences.

Neuroscience helps explain why storytelling stimulates rich inner learning and what we might learn from stories of people, young and old. Although stories are unscientific, often imprecise narratives of human thought, they help organize and integrate the neural networks of the brain (Oatley, 1992). A well-told story contains emotions, thoughts, conflicts and resolutions. Louis Cozolino, a clinical psychologist who applies neuroscience to how humans develop secure relationships, claims that stories are critical to brain development and learning (Cozolino, 2013).

There are two essential parts of a story that stimulate the brain, according to Cozolino. First, stories contain a series of events, grounded in a period of time. Second, there is an emotional component to stories that gives them meaning and significance. If part of fostering healthy youth development is about enabling children to find meaning from their life experiences, we can easily understand how stories give youth the mental templates for self-reflection. When youth feel connected to a story, their neuro networks are stimulated. Adults help young people unravel their feelings through reflective conversations.

Young people do the same for adults. When older adults engage in meaningful conversations with children and teens, they co-create new stories that help make sense of an ever-increasingly complex society. Adults continue to learn, grow, and adapt because their own neuro networks are alive and active.

The philosophy of John Dewey (1916, 1938) not only contributed to how we think about education but also how we frame an understanding of experience. He did not see an individual’s experience in reductionist terms, a way of thinking common in American society today. Rather, he viewed it as an ever-changing, constantly unfolding process created by personal, social, and cultural interaction. Dewey’s way of thinking emphasized ordinary life stories and how those stories helped individuals solve problems both personally and collectively.

When Teens and Elders Share Stories

I recently worked with a group of teens and elders in a six-week structured group experience where intergenerational pairs shared life stories with one another. The following reflections are part of an ongoing research project about how adults and teens influence each other’s positive development. The comments support the research on the power of stories, suggesting that intergenerational stories can bring meaning to life experiences and act as a conduit to learning.

When teens were asked what they learned from their elder partners through the experience of sharing stories with them, the following comments were reflective of many others:  

  • “My partner taught me to always do something. She taught me to never settle for being okay. Never do something you don’t want to do, do something that makes you happy."
  • “I learned from my partner that there are many unknowns, about yourself and about what the world holds. I learned everyone has many stories to share, no matter their age or gender. “
  • “I learned that there is not one right way to go through life and that everyone makes their own path. Everyone makes mistakes and it is how you deal with them that matters in the end.”
  • “I learned to search for courage, especially, in all moments.”
  • “I learned that you can give back to your community in ways I would have never even thought of.”

When elders were asked what they learned from their teen partners, these comments were reflective of many others:

  • “I learned what it is like for a young person to struggle with problems and how that allows people to develop compassion.”
  • “My partner showed me the importance of showing up in relationships and the importance of being loyal to friends.”
  • “I learned, one more time, that there is no such thing as a safe life; that living, by definition is difficult. But it is also fun and funny if you continue to open yourself up to new possibilities.”
  • “My partner’s tolerance and acceptance of herself and others for who they are has encouraged me (once again) to examine my own ability to do the same.”
  • “Regardless of our age differences, I learned we have the same hopes and dreams for a good future and compassion and caring for the present. It was Interesting how one can bear your soul to essentially a stranger.”

3 Intergenerational Conversation Starters

The learning shared by teens and elders above resulted from random pairings of high school students and community members over the age of 55. However, many left the six-week experience with goals to more deeply connect to their own grandparents or grandchildren. You might want to consider using these conversation starters to generate learning for young and old!

It is recommended that you tackle only one set of questions at a time. Allow plenty of time, give each person the opportunity to share a story or stories, and permit the stories and dialogue to take you wherever they are meant to go.

  1. Describe a time when you truly felt seen, heard, and understood by another person. What did this person do that helped you feel listened to and respected? What did you learn?
  2. Describe one of your greatest accomplishments and what motivated you to pursue it? How did others support you? What did you learn?
  3. Tell a story about a time you faced and overcame a personal life challenge or stood up for something you believed was right. How did others support you? What did you learn?

Scholars have linked storytelling to meaning-making for many years (Polkinghorne, 1988). It is through people’s stories that we develop our own views of the world. When we interact with people whose stories are different than our own, it forces us to reexamine our values and perceptions. For adolescents, it fosters the development of their identities.


Cozolino, L. (2013). The social neuroscience of education: Optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom: WW Norton & Company.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York, NY: MacMillan.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi.

Oatley, K. (1992). Integrative action of narrative. In D. J. Stein & J. E. Young (Eds.), Cognitive Science and Clinical Disorders (pp. 151-172). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and researcher, working at the intersection of positive youth development and education. Follow Marilyn's work at Roots of ActionTwitter, or Facebook.  

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