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How stories can transform relationships - and change our brains

     Listening is the connective tissue in relationships, and as member of a profession that demands listening with a maximum of attention, it was with great interest that I read a research study showing that an engaged listener's brain activity synchs up with the brain of the storyteller. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Psychological Sciences published a study that showed "coupling" in the brain waves of tellers and listeners, some visible evidence of the way our consciousness connects. And here's the kicker. This is an effect "that vanishes when participants fail to communicate." This might mean that making an effort to develop our storytelling skills can pay off in stronger social bonds and an uptick in that intangible but psychologically powerful sense of being heard and understood by others.
      Relationships are forged with the raw material of our self-defined themes and the roles we take in our personal narratives. When we shape a story we include specific details, leave out others, and lead with the ways we want the world to see and understand us. Researcher Mary Main published important work that looked at attachment between parents and children inter-generationally. She found that the way parents told their own stories,"how they made sense of their past lives, or didn't-was the most powerful predictor (85 percent accuracy) of whether their own children would be securely attached to them. It wasn't what happened to them as children, but how they came to make sense of what happened to them that predicted their emotional integration as adults and what kind of parents they'd be."
     Coming to terms with the past, with what has happened and shaped our lives, is in many ways the retelling of a story in a way that makes meaning out of pain. A story that describes our transformation and in the telling, turns it into reality. When we tell our stories to others who are actively engaged and listening, our neurons fire together and forge deep bonds. "Stories bring together the external, observable, objective world and our internal experience of our minds," says Dr. Dan Siegel, a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and author of The Developing Mind, "Neurons that fire together, wire together,"
      The stories we hear change our brains. The stories we tell change others' brains. This is how psychotherapy heals. It is how relationships grow. Think of listening as the expression of connection with important people and participate in shifting the narrative. Think of how the stories we tell define us to the people who receive them, and their impact on how others feel and think. A narrative of transformation can be a powerful part of creating one.



 

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