The Healing Power of Stories

Stories have a very powerful effect on people in very positive ways…and all it cost was a 90 minute visit to a museum.

Those of you who know me (or if you have been a fairly regular reader of this blog) know that I am a big believer in the power of stories.  I am a regular reader who takes part in a local bookstore’s monthly Cocktail Book Club, in which readers gather not only to discuss a book, but also to enjoy cocktails based on the book.  Most of my friends are also readers, including a group of ladies I work with and one good friend who now works in Wichita, and we regularly pass books back and forth amongst ourselves.  Part of the reason I chose museums as my initial field of study within History in college was because compared to the methodical, sanitized, censored and thoroughly boring “history” that is taught in schools, I felt museums had a much greater chance at having an impact because they featured stories.  Real life stories of real life people, who left written records and objects they used in life as key pieces of their life stories.

Bloom TaxonomyStories have a very powerful effect on people in very positive ways.  It’s not just about being an escape that lets you relieve stress in life.  It’s also a way of actively putting yourself into a situation, often from an omniscient point of view.  This allows you, as you read the story, to examine the plot line from many different angles and begin thinking about how what the characters are thinking and what they know or don’t know may impact the plot.  This represents a higher level of thinking and understanding than merely remembering something.  Being able to analyze a situation, take it apart and figure out how all of the parts equal the whole is the third level from the top in Bloom’s Taxonomy.


Silas as portrayed by Paul Bettany in The DaVinci Code film.

Not only do stories encourage analytical thinking, they also encourage empathy.  Take for example author Dan’s Brown’s work The DaVinci Code, a world-wide best-seller that spawned a very successful (if simplified) movie series staring Tom Hanks as Dr. Robert Langdon.  One character within the story who I find fascinating is Silas, an orphan adopted by Cardinal Aringarosa and raised as a Catholic Monk within the order of Opus Dei, an ultra-orthodox group who favor self-mutilation and will do anything to stop Dr. Langdon and Agent Sophie Neveau from discovering the secret of the Holy Grail.  Silas does things in both the book and the movie which are truly evil, including murdering Agent Neveau’s uncle in the Louvre and bludgeoning to death Sister Sandrine of Saint Sulpice, who attempts to alert the Priory of Scion (a group of people sworn to protect the secret of the Holy Grail) that their cover has been blown and Opus Dei is attempting to bury the secret forever.  But those who read the book (and to a lesser extent, those who saw the film), get inside Silas’ head.  They see how damaged he is from a childhood filled with danger and abuse.  They see how he develops an insatiable desire to protect those who he holds in high regard, including Aringarosa.  You see how Aringarosa uses this against him, manipulating him into committing these horrible acts.  Does it absolve Silas of his guilt?  Absolutely not.  But it does make both Silas and the overall story more complex, and the reader does feel that he is a victim as well.

Not only are stories powerful, but they are multi-faceted.  They can be told by a person.  You can read them in a book.  You can watch them on TV or Cinema screens.  You can listen to them on the radio or in music.  Or you can see them in works of art.  In fact that is one of the major clues within Brown’s novel…the famous Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is not what meets the eye; the painting is trying to tell you a story, but the story is as unique as the person who views it.  I enjoy visiting art museums, at least those that feature beautiful masterpieces of classic art rather than just the modern silliness that some artists attempt to pass off as art now, precisely because of their power to tell stories through art.The Last SupperTwo physicians at Columbia University recently published a small study in the medical journal Neurology, which takes the idea of art-as-emotional-connector in a new direction.  In the study, 19 medical students took a survey in which they rated their abilities and comfort levels in dealing with patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, an area in which many physicians and medical students struggle because of the nature of the condition.  These medical students then accompanied Alzheimer’s patients and their families to a local art museum, where they were told to view, talk about or create art for 90 minutes.  At the end of the visit, the medical students took the survey again, to see if there were any improvements in their abilities or feelings about Alzheimer’s or Dementia patients.

The results of the survey indicated that there was a “modest” increase in the medical student’s comfort level when dealing with dementia patients as a result of this activity, but the researchers point out that what was more interesting was the student’s comments after the museum visit.  The students told researchers that they appreciated being able to see what the patients were capable of, rather than seeing them primarily as humans with deficiencies which needed constant measurement.  They expressed less fear and greater understanding of the progression of the disease, which can help them understand the burden on family and other caregivers.  The researchers in the study plan to follow-up to see if the new perspective lasts as the students make their way through medical school and on to their careers.

I believe that this is a very powerful perspective for physician’s to have, and all it cost was a 90 minute visit to a museum.  It also proves that there are some things that provide benefits which are not easy to quantify, but that those benefits should still be recognized.  I hope that this stirs greater cooperation between the medical community and museums, both of which can benefit from the relationship.

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