Words Can Change Your Brain

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Leaderonomics

12-05-2014

6 min read

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editor@leaderonomics.com

We are all soft-wired to tell and respond to stories.

Phillip Pullman said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

He’s probably right. Stories are a powerful organising tool for your brain’s neural network. A well-told, timely story can literally reshape the brain. Stories give people a chance, not to see who they are, but who they might become. Narrative is powerful. Stories allow our brain to see the world differently. They give us hope.

Neuroscientists are investigating the science of hope. It turns out that a feeling of hopefulness changes your brain. The opposite is also true. Your brain pumps chemicals when experiencing the sensation of hope. These chemicals can block pain and accelerate healing.

Hope, which involves belief and expectation, causes the brain to release neurochemicals called endorphins and enkephalins which actually mimic the effects of morphine. This results in the brain being able to overcome hurdles and move to a place of recovery. In scientific terms, hope and recovery are correlated, and may be causally connected.

I believe hope is as vital to the brain as the oxygen we breathe. Times are difficult these days. A feeling of hopefulness can make a real difference!

What do I do for my brain? I feed my brain stories that paint a clear picture of hope. Stories are the No. 1 brain state changer on the planet! Stories do far more than entertain. Neuroscientists believe that our brains are wired for stories. Stories captivate the brain. They release emotions that are inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Brain scientists call this “narrative transport”.

I believe storytelling has become a casualty of our busy, hectic pace of life. Parents, leaders, teachers… everyone should tell more stories. Remember, a story is not a story until it is told.

So, here’s a story for teachers, except it’s not. It’s a story for all of us. Originally based on a magazine article by Elizabeth Ungar called “Three Letters from Teddy” published in Home Life in 1976, the story has been adapted over time and shared by many. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

“As she stood in front of her fifth grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children an untruth. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. However, that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.

Mrs Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he did not play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath. In addition, Teddy could be unpleasant.

It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold Xs and then putting a big “F” at the top of his papers.

At the school where Mrs Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s past records and she put Teddy’s off until last. However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise.

Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners… he is a joy to be around.”

His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”

His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.”

Teddy’s fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and he sometimes sleeps in class.”

By now, Mrs Thompson realised the problem and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s. His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents.

Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist.

Teddy stayed after school that day just long enough to say, “Mrs Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to.” After the children left, she cried for at least an hour.

On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded.

By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite the lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her “teacher’s pets.”

A year later, she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.

Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in life.

Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honours. He assured Mrs Thompson that she was still the best and favourite teacher he had ever had in his whole life.

Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still the best and favourite teacher he ever had. But now his name was a little longer…. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, MD.

The story does not end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he had met this girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs Thompson might agree to sit at the wedding in the place that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

Of course, Mrs Thompson did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. Moreover, she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together.

They hugged each other, and Dr Stoddard whispered in Mrs Thompson’s ear, “Thank you Mrs Thompson for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.

Mrs Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, “Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.” – Source unknown.

Remember, you don’t perceive a reality as it really is. You perceive a reality as it is constructed by your own mind.

Try and give your brain one good story a day and watch the weather in your head change.

Congratulations on learning something about your brain today.

Terry Small is a brain expert who resides in Canada and believes that anyone can learn how to learn easier, better, faster, and that learning to learn is the most important skill a person can acquire. To interact with Small, email mystarjob@leaderonomics.com. Click here for more brain bulletins. 

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