Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Behind the Scenes: Our Subconscious’ Role in Listening to Stories

By Julie Holden

Such beginnings as "Once upon a time, or In a land far far away," and even "In the beginning," are all cultural signals to the brain that we are about to be told a story, and that we should switch off our normal, everyday censorship. However, there is one beginning that is almost sure to make us suspend our disbelief: the statement This is a true story. It appeals to us perhaps more than any other because we not only want it to be true, we want to hear it because it is true.

As much as storytellers lead us away into fantasy, our brains are looking for what is real, what can be relied on. Of course, in story tradition, a story element is often a metaphor for truth, so it is hardly surprising that even when faced with make believe, we still look for truth. It is almost as if we know that the story has something to give us – some gift, or even healing. Many therapists deliberately use stories to heal, to awaken insight.

The Healing Power of Stories

In her workshops on how stories heal, Humans Givens therapist and storyteller, Pat Williams, relates a time when a colleague (Ivan Tyrell) spontaneously created a story for a client who had suffered debilitating verrucas for many years, with no success from any other therapy. After putting her into a hypnotic trance Ivan conjured up for her a story of a queen whose land had been invaded, by enemies who had holed themselves up in castles (verrucas) all over her land (her feet). By having an advisor enter the story and teach the queen how to mobilize her people (her immune system) to surround and cut off the food supplies to the castles she was able to rid her lands of the foe. Although the woman did not remember the story upon awaking, within weeks her verrucas were gone.

Tim Chante, a story writer who creates custom written fairy tales for clients seeking a personal gift for loved ones, has also seen the unexpected yet profound healing affect a story can have. Finding that the listener, the person the story has been created for, often finds meaning in the tale that Tim himself had no idea of.

However, perhaps this hidden power we have to make meaning is not so surprising. Research into the experience of listening to a story shows that a number of factors are present when we enter a story listening experience—even into a normal, apparently awake one. It appears that a form of self-hypnosis is taking place: as when listening to a story, participants exhibit an almost trance like quality, as breathing and swallowing reflexes are slowed, they become more still, pupils dilate and faces soften. It suggests the story, whether by our conscious permission or not, is indeed working with our subconscious.

Moreover, whilst the subconscious is empowered by its need to search for what is real—it will, if necessary, create it. In experiments people are seen to be unwittingly guided by their subconscious. While participants believed they were making conscious choices about strategy and approach—in this case, to chase a radio controlled toy helicopter around a gymnasium—their subconscious had them performing the task in exactly the same way. They thought they varied from each other by using different chase techniques of speed, or direction, or foot movement, but in fact they all did it by simply keeping the helicopter visually in the same position, relative to its background, by moving themselves accordingly. In other words, their subconscious was making the helicopter appear to move in a visually straight line, thus allowing them to predict where it would be in time to catch it.

Art Reflects Life

In life, we too appear to be at the will of our subconscious’ need to make sense. Tim Chante, mentioned above, tells of a young boy ‘David’ whom he supported when doing some advocacy work in UK junior schools. The boy had presented as having a distinct dislike of himself—that he was a ‘bad person’. When Tim explored the belief though story, he found it related to an incident two years previously when another boy in his class, who shared the same first name, had died tragically in a road accident. At that time, David had been told by a class mate that “the wrong David had died”. From that incident, David had lost the ability to be his own ‘good guy’. Evidence indeed of the degree to which we write our story.

Although this is not to say the subconscious is against us; certainly it is far likely that its plans for us are survival orientated and therefore making sense as best it can. It does suggest that we are more asleep in its grasp than is always useful, and that perhaps a trick can be learned from the storytelling listening experience. Storytelling listeners have reported that a number of factors can cause them to wake up from the story trance: Disturbances in their surroundings; jolts in the story; the teller being over dramatic or false; and the listener’s own predisposition, knowledge, or bias. If these factors are looked at in terms of events that may happen in the course of a person’s lifetime, it can be seen that any number of the incidents we experience day to day, or our ability to spot a jolt in logic or reason, or a fake presentation of life’s truths, or our own personal wisdom, can each give us an opportunity to leap out of dreaming our way through life.

Author Timothy Freke has coined a phrase for this waking up process. He calls it Lucid Living: the act of coming awake in the life dream. In his case, the coming awake is far from painful—it is simply becoming aware of the dream in order to keep one foot out of it.

There is no question that without this, most of the events that do ‘wake us up’ are often painful, and we would be forgiven for preferring to remain as Ulysses sailors, when they fell foul of the Lotus-eaters and begged him to leave them to gorge endlessly on the seductive fruit. But one way or another, we do need to find a way to wake up to truly embrace life. Not so much leave the story we are living, that is impossible, but to at least be the hero actively.

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Julia Holden is a former primary-school teacher turned amateur artist and professional writer. She focuses on both children's literature and family issues, writing on behalf of a number of clients as varied as a personal finance site and an organic coffee producer.




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