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Self-Esteem

How Life Stories Synchronize Our Brains and Raise Self-Esteem

Our brains respond to stories with feelings of empathy and connection.

Key points

  • Telling and hearing stories synchronizes our brain patterns with others, and releases oxytocin
  • Stories of close family members, research shows, may increase positive feelings and self-esteem
  • Adolescents gain a greater sense of identity and well-being from knowing stories about their parents (but not about their friends).

I did not think we would spend another Christmas worried about COVID. A few weeks ago, it felt like maybe the world was opening up and we were approaching the “new normal” that we have all been waiting for when a new variant dashed our hopes. Once again, we are reading every headline, every news alert, to learn more about this new variant. What does it mean? Can we celebrate with family and friends this year? Can we travel to see loved ones? Perhaps this is the new normal—what our lives will be like.

On December 23, the New York Times published a series of 50-word pandemic stories—readers telling poignant stories of losses due to the pandemic, of love found, of bonds renewed, of re-openings and re-locking down. The stories are brief vignettes that paint pictures of individual lives and communal understanding of what we have all been going through. Reading these short stories, I cried, with tears of commiseration and tears of joy. Somehow reading these stories made me feel better.

That the telling, hearing, and sharing stories is emotionally powerful is unarguable, but exactly why remains something of a mystery. What is it about stories that creates a sense of empathy and community? It turns out our brains may be hardwired to do just this. Research by Simone Shamay-Tsoory and her colleagues has been examining the brain bases of empathy. Using brain-imaging techniques, they have discovered that when we feel empathy for another, our brains actually synchronize; they have found evidence of a feedback loop such that our brains engage in a social alignment with other brains, and when patterns of activation are aligned, the reward system is activated. We feel good when our brains are literally in sync with others.

One way to activate this feedback loop that synchronizes our brains is through touch. But stories may also do this. Paul Zak found that listening to others’ stories releases oxytocin, a hormone related to positive bonding. A great deal of research has shown that higher levels of oxytocin lead to feelings of connection and love. Zak has shown that oxytocin increases simply as a result of listening to others’ stories. So, when we hear stories, our brain patterns both align with the storyteller, and the release of oxytocin makes us feel closer to that person. These brain-based mechanisms help explain why listening to stories is such an emotional experience.

Does it matter whose story it is? Maybe. Shamay-Tsoory finds that the alignment of brain activations is stronger for romantic couples than for strangers, so perhaps our empathic response is tuned to people with whom we already have a close relationship. Research from my Family Narratives Lab has shown that adolescents gain more of a sense of identity and well-being from knowing stories about their parents than stories about their friends. Recent research by Dorthe Thomsen has drilled down into this possibility. She asks research participants to write their own life story, their mothers’ life story, or the life story of a close friend. She measures self-esteem both before and after the writing activity. Again, a great deal of research has already established that expressively writing about your personal experiences helps you organize and understand these experiences in more coherent ways, thus increasing self-esteem. And Thomsen replicates this finding: Writing your own life story increases your self-esteem. But so does writing your mothers’ life story; that increases self-esteem just as much as writing about your own life. In contrast, though, writing your friend’s life story has little to no effect.

Across this research, we see again the power of stories, especially stories of close family members. As we hear and tell these stories, we connect, and this connection makes us feel better. This new research shows how this process unfolds in the brain.

This Christmas, I hope you get to visit with family and loved ones, to hug them and hold them close. But even if this is not possible, I hope you share each other’s’ stories. Write your own 50-word pandemic story. Listen to others' 50-word stories. Laugh and cry over shared experiences. Use the power of family storytelling to create empathic connections and increase well-being and self-esteem even across the miles.

References

Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Saporta, N., Marton-Alper, I. Z., & Gvirts, H. Z. (2019). Herding brains: a core neural mechanism for social alignment. Trends in cognitive sciences, 23(3), 174-186.

Zak, P. J. (2014). Why your brain loves good storytelling. Harvard business review, 28.

Goldstein, P., Weissman-Fogel, I., Dumas, G., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2018). Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 115(11), E2528-E2537.

Thomsen, D. (2021). Paper presented at the biennial meetings of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

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