The brain and story


Ghosts in hall

Ghosts in the hall. Rachel TitirigaCC BY

My mother-in-law had a stroke one week ago today.

At ninety-one, she came through emergency surgery astoundingly well. In ICU, she was happy to see her children and grandchildren, called them all by name, told everyone how shocked she was that she’d had a stroke. As I greeted her, she held out her hand to me and said, “Hey, you’ve got a birthday this weekend.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, in wonder.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she said, holding tight to my hand.

In the hospital and rehab, she has remained lucid, talking about books, authors, politics, and traveling she wants to do.

So when she occasionally asks, “Hey, little boy, what are you doing over there?” when no little boy is present, or “Who’s that standing behind you?” when no one is, the family gets anxious.

The physician explained: “It’s her brain at work – partly because of the area affected by the stroke and partly due to her declining vision. When she doesn’t immediately understand what she sees or what’s happening, her brain supplies the story, to make sense of it.”

I hung on every word, thinking: The power of story is profound. It’s more than reading or writing. It’s who we are, how we are wired. 

Both Scientific American and Big Think explain: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” Our ability to solve problems, the scientists say, is tied to our understanding of story: “Perhaps story patterns can be considered another higher layer of language.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.

Story is the essence of being human. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Story is how we attempt to understand who we are, and how we stretch the boundaries of possibility and our humanity, by imagining more: “What if . . . .”

As an educator, the visit with my mother-in-law could not have been a more striking reminder that story is critical to student learning and growth. It’s not so much the types of texts that students read, but their interpretations, their stories, about the texts that matter – and that for students truly to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, they must go beyond synthesizing and responding to what others have written. They must look within and generate their own stories. To not do so is to hamper human nature, to not meet an intrinsically human need – and to starve the human brain.



6 thoughts on “The brain and story

  1. Your post has me thinking – lots to ponder! Favorite line –
    “Fascinating, isn’t it, that story is where science and the humanities meet.”
    I’ve always loved stories and now realize that there is so much I still want to understand about the brain.
    I’m glad your mother-in-law and your post got me thinking. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for telling me your favorite line, and how the post got you thinking. The experience surely made me do so; my thoughts are still churning. I am with you in wanting to know more about the brain – utterly fascinating. As for stories – well, I believe now more than ever that they are part of our necessary survival skills.


  2. Yes, the power of story is real. Unfortunately, it’s only been until just recently that I have realized how powerful it is. Thank you for sharing about your MIL. Once again it demonstrates just how meaningful our life stories are.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such important connections in this post, Fran. I think about the power of story a lot, within all genres of writing, and within lessons and conversations. Stories connect and really do help us make sense of tough concepts. Music could really reach her as well. Try it if you haven’t already!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am quite compelled to explore the power of story even further, as the “higher form of language” and the way that we think. As to music: My mother-in-law is quite musical and has been singing a number of hymns and old songs, without missing a word – another marvel! It’s intentional, not random. She’s showing how her memory is still working. I believe there’s an additional layer of healing in it. And thank you!


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