Stories, Oxytocin and Our Mission

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2015-april-18-annualmeeting-paulettepodium-croppedSince ancient times, storytelling has helped humans to survive. Through story, we communicate the wisdom of experience and pass language, culture and knowledge to future generations. Our brains are wired for story. We learn from stories, make connections to ideas and characters in stories and respond both physiologically and emotionally.

Consider a study published in The Annals of the New York Academy of Science in 2009 by Dr. Paul Zak and his colleagues. When their subjects became engaged in watching or hearing a compelling story, those who reported feeling empathy for the characters in the clip were found to have 47 percent more of the neurochemical oxytocin in their body than those who didn’t feel empathetic toward the characters. This increased empathy is understandable since oxytocin has been shown to make people more sensitive to social cues.

In this fast paced modern world, I think we could appreciate an increase in naturally occurring oxytocin in our lives to feel more empathetic, involved and sensitive to one another. If stories are a key to this type of well being, is it simply a matter of being exposed to more story content?

Stories today come at us from everywhere. Competition is intense for us to like and respond to what grabs our attention. News headlines and tweets pop with sensationalism and flash. Media options from bigger-than-life stories seem to up the ante and become more extreme year by year. When overstimulated by the noise, I am left feeling numb, desensitized and small.

As I see it, we are practiced story consumers—not practiced story tellers. At least, we are not often tellers of our own stories, even with the loved ones in our families. As a result, we miss the deeply satisfying sense of empathy and connection that comes from sharing something precious. What we need is not more external exposure to story product; it’smore internal involvement in story process.

Everyone has a story to tell, and each perspective is unique. At first, most people I ask say they don’t have a story to tell. They don’t notice the difference they have made in the world, haven’t thought about what matters, don’t think anyone cares, or are afraid to say what really happened to them. Then, it goes quiet. I lean in to listen, and the story starts to flow.

Like anything of value, it requires work and courage for a storyteller to turn a significant life experience into words, often for the first time. The creative process itself is therapeutic and meaningful, but it is hard. An empathetic listener plays a valuable role simply by truly paying attention to the storyteller. The connections that develop between us can bridge differences, change attitudes and motivate new behaviors—transforming the future.

As this demonstrates, the Life Story Library Foundation works to renew faith in ourselves and the wisdom of personal life experience. Our mission is to collect, save and share the personal life stories of our time as valuable recorded history. As its founder, here is what I see is possible in the next few years with what we need in funding, a trained staff and community volunteers.

By accepting the challenge of this mission, we bring together story resources from many thousands of people from every walk of life and around the world, especially from voices that are not often heard. We organize and archive these resources so they are discoverable and deliverable online through the innovative use of technology. These personal stories and eye witness accounts not only serve to expand our understanding today, they democratize recorded history!

As a team, we model storytelling that is authentic, effective and life-sized. Since a narrative is not the same as a story, we provide guidelines and prompts to help authors find turning point moments, utilize conflict, character, setting and other the elements of story, and express what the experience means to them.

We offer a variety of different forums for stories to be generated and shared, including webinars, seminars, small groups, contests, video interviews and writing workshops. We select feature stories that are insightful and compelling, and we involve the social community in the process. Service upgrades are available through our network of qualified service providers.

We generate revenue, publish anthologies, open dialogue across divides, produce documentaries, match stories with film makers, and sponsor live performances at our new building and reminiscence garden to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. We work with local volunteers in communities in several states and provinces, as well as the leading international organizations in the field to magnify the social, emotional and physiological benefits of reminiscence and life review.

A meaningful life story is a precious legacy, turning the hearts of generations of children to their fathers. In a similar way, our collective stories create a legacy of respectful understanding and inspire peaceful coexistence in a global audience. As Margaret Wheatley noted, “We do not fear the people whose stories we know.”

Through courageously sharing our personal truths, human beings can learn from one another as we have since ancient times, let go of fear, feel greater empathy and sense of belonging, and take life-affirming steps to assure a safe and bright future for our entire human family.

by Paulette Stevens

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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