Storytelling is as old as mankind itself. Long before the Sumerians were writing down The Epic of Gilgamesh on their clay tablets 4,000 years ago, people have been gathering round the fire to tell long-forgotten tales.
These stories helped us to understand the world around us (think how Zeus was used to explain why people were sometimes struck down by lighting), bond as groups, and navigate challenging social situations.
Today, though now we can explain the natural world through science, fiction still plays an important part in our lives. It allows us to live vicariously in situations that would never exist in the real world, or even helps us escape our own, sometimes difficult, reality.
Fiction can also help us feel validated, whether you’re going through a break-up or struggling with your mental health, reading about a similar experience, fictional or otherwise, lets us know we’re not alone in feeling the way we do.
This somewhat therapeutic power of stories is backed up by scientific studies, such as one done by PNAS on children in intensive care units in hospitals.
The researchers found children who were read stories had increased oxytocin and positive emotion levels, with decreased levels of stress and pain.
Oxytocin is important as it helps regulate our emotions and lower stress, meaning that we find difficult situations easier to navigate.
The positive results found by the study are hypothesised to happen because of ‘narrative transportation’, in which the interaction of the text with our brains allows us to fully immerse ourselves in the story.
This transportation not only improved the children’s happiness in an extremely stressful environment, but lead to them being more calm and less anxious afterwards.
Compared to the control group of children, who were not read to, they were found to have double the oxytocin levels, as well as an increase in trusting behaviour towards the adults around them.
The lowering of the cortisol levels found by the study is also positive, as too much of the hormone can weaken your immune system.
Overall, being read to also helped reduce negative emotions of hospitalisation – meaning that in the long term these children were less likely to be traumatised by their experience.
Though of course most of us aren’t going through as potentially traumatic a situation as being a child in an intensive care unit, the benefits found by the study of storytelling are likely also to be beneficial in our everyday lives, especially if we are going through a stressful time.
One thing that often doesn’t transfer to adulthood though is actually listening to fictional stories, as we often read them ourselves.
Reading often gives us the desired escapism, but listening to stories being read to you is actually better for increasing empathy, and allows some people better immersion due to the fact it is easier to visualise a story if it is being read to you.
The solution to this in adult life: audiobooks.
Even if you prefer reading and don’t want to splash the cash on an audiobook service, just listening to some free ones on YouTube from time to time may be beneficial – especially if you’re going through a stressful moment in your life.
Don’t forget to check out BLOT’s #ReadForYourMind campaign over on Instagram.
If you liked this article then read Can reading fiction make you a better person? or “Reading helped me understand my mental illness” – Mental health representation in books and why it’s important next.
Arthur is a journalism student at The University of Sheffield. As well as being a founding member of BLOT, he has also written for Forge Press, Sheff Central and One2Football. His hobbies include climbing, going to gigs and of course, reading.
Favourite genres: Magical Realism and Historical Fiction.