STORYTELLING reaches the “core of our humanity”.

The results of a recent study on the effects of storytelling on children in hospital, published in the scientific journal PNAS (, state: “We found that, compared with an active control condition, one storytelling session with hospitalised children leads to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts.” It concluded that “these important clinical implications affirm storytelling as a low-cost and humanised intervention that can improve the wellbeing of hospitalised children”.

Oxytocin is the feel-good emotion, often associated with childbirth, but which can play a role in reducing stress and anxiety for us all. It’s a hormone which helps build trust and attachment, as opposed to cortisol, which increases stress levels.

We do sometimes need cortisol when faced with a challenge or fearful situation, so it does have its function. It’s part of our fight and flight response. But the problem arises when levels remain too high for an extended period of time, as this keeps our bodies under a constant state of stress.

When this happens, it can cause anxiety and depression, but also lots of physical issues such as headaches and tummy pain. It’s very difficult to concentrate and remember things when we are in this state.

The study showed that for children in hospital, a time full of stress and worry for many reasons, storytelling resulted in an increase in oxytocin levels and reduction of cortisol, and so made the children feel less anxious and stressed, and even helped ease their physical pain.

While the context of this research was children in the very stressful situation of being in hospital, I think the results and conclusions are also relevant for children in other stressful settings, including at school and home. I’m not making a direct comparison, but we’ve not had ‘normal times’ recently, and even in usual times, high levels of stress can be a big issue for many. So levels of stress and anxiety are heightened, even beyond the ‘normal’ for many of us.

Some of the language in the article is related to the science of the findings, but the conclusions and observations are things teachers, parents and storytellers of all kinds will recognise. It describes how children being told the story “are transported to another possible world during storytelling sessions” and can “elicit positive physiological and psychological changes”. In other words, it can have a positive effect on physical and mental health.

This transportation to “another possible world” is what storytellers often refer to as the story trance. It’s when children are absorbed in a story, and taken by their imagination to the world the story creates. The report explains that this absorption stimulates various parts of the brain and aids the listener’s development of empathy, as well as a better understanding of their own emotions.

None of this is really surprising, of course. But it’s really useful to have this kind of scientific back-up. An important finding was that the stories told were ones widely available and not specifically adapted for therapeutic use; just the kind of tales you find in a book from the library.

And while they used professional storytellers for the research, a key point was that everyone can have this impact, including parents and caregivers: “It is important to note that even though we have used experienced storytellers for our research purposes, we believe that parents should be encouraged to tell their children stories. As we have shown, it is not necessary to use special stories or books or even specific techniques to achieve a successful outcome. Storytelling can be an effective means of creating important emotional bonds.”

As I have said, this study looked at the impact of storytelling for children in hospital, which can be a deeply distressing time for both child and parents.

Reading the report made me remember the time I was seven years old in the Western General Hospital, in an isolation ward by myself, very ill. I was told a story about a dragon who lived in a castle, and was given a model castle, made from used toilet rolls, and painted silver. I’d look at it when I was alone, which I always was except for visits. It was a stage for my imagination. I’d speak to the dragon and imagine the adventures I’d have with him when I finally got out of hospital. These stories were always my secret, but they helped me get out of hospital and have fun, when in the real world I could do neither.

The thing is, our kids, as well ourselves, need this. The story is part of it, the characters, the challenges, the suspense, the connection to the emotions in the tale. It all works on our brain and our being. But it’s also the process of storytelling: the togetherness it creates, the shared space and attention, the heart-to-heart connection, the stimulation of imagination. Not even the best film on a screen does that.

We are all storytellers, but sometimes it is good to be reminded just how important it is to be so, and that includes listening to, as well as telling, stories.

As the report concluded: “Stories possess a symbolic dimension that seems to create a natural bridge to the core of our humanity.”