In his testimony, Mr. Underwood describes the disease as “absolutely brutal.” He tells the committee that the Underwood’s have to pour water and bleach on Reid’s wounds as the only way to effectively clean them to prevent infection. Mr. Underwood says, “I’m sure everyone can relate to getting a blister on your feet or hands, and how even just water stings. Now imagine that your whole leg from the shin down to your foot is completely raw, and you pour bleach and water on that wound.” Holding back tears, Mr. Underwood pauses for several seconds before telling the committee that the lifespan for children with this condition is extremely short, and that children with this condition who live long enough to be able to communicate verbally say that their skin feels like it is constantly on fire. After the Underwoods’ testimony, lawmakers voted to include Reid’s disease as a condition allowing for the use of medical marijuana.
Examples of personal narratives influencing court rulings are far from rare. In a time when our country seems to remain hopelessly divided on a host of health issues (abortion, healthcare, drug legalization), storytelling—the sharing of real, personal narratives from one’s lived experience—offers a powerful antidote. Research has shown examples of people using stories to win support for policy changes that are at odds with the prevailing common sense. Further, studies have shown that storytelling helps foster empathy, compassion, tolerance, and respect for difference. Besides being an engaging and rewarding practice in itself, personal storytelling can help increase awareness, support, and funding for important global and public health issues, as well as help bride superficial political divides and remind us of our common humanity. Organizations and projects such as StoryCorps, Global Dialogues, and Humans of New York work to harness the power of storytelling and the media to invoke social change.
Founded in 1997, Global Dialogues (GD) is a multinational NGO that harnesses the power of storytelling to foster empathy and compassion in order to mobilize efforts to improve human health. Global Dialogues envisions “a healthy, peaceful world in which an empathetic and compassionate humanity flourishes in a spirit of equality and unity in diversity,” and their mission is to “promote global public health and societal well-being through integrated, youth-driven solutions fueled by creativity and multidisciplinary partnership.”
In the Global Dialogues program, young people write stories in international story-creating contests. Juries then come together to select the best stories— “the ones that they feel could make the best and most useful films to be distributed worldwide.” According to co-founder Daniel Enger, GD chose film as the medium to tell participants’ stories because they need to use “the most effective media possible” if they are to be successful in their mission. “Film is probably the best of the best,” Enger said.
Global Dialogues’ International Selection Committee meets every year at Emory University to choose the final stories to get published and turned into films. A panel of young people makes the final decisions. Then, the Global Dialogues team produces and disseminates the films via social media. (Their films are available in up to 30 languages, and are viewed by millions each year online.) Lastly, they conduct narrative research and apply those research findings in programs and policy.
Kate Winskell, professor at the Rollins School of Public Health believes that “the potential of the narratives is really very great—as a needs identification tool, but also as a source of inspiration about how we could be doing things better, how young people are actually showing us the way of how things can be done better, if only we’d listen.” Global Dialogues’ structure is important because it highlights and promotes the voices that need to be heard—voices of people whose needs are not being met, through no fault of their own. According to Dr. Jim Curran, Dean of the Rollins School of Public Health, the Global Dialogues process “has credibility because the creative process comes from the people for whom it’s intended.” Global Dialogues makes sure that the storytellers’ voices are the center and the entirety of the message, and that the interviewers and program organizers remain transparent facilitators of dialogue, rather than creators of it. In other words, they just listen.
StoryCorps began as a story-booth in New York City’s Grand Central Station in 2003. Today, StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that produces podcasts and narrated animations of interviews with people to “record, preserve, and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs.” StoryCorps’ mission is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world,” to remind each other of our shared humanity, to build and strengthen connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to “weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.” StoryCorps’ main strength is its dedication to recording and sharing the narratives of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs.
Story Corps has collected its own data on the impact storytelling has had on their listeners. Looking at data from nearly 600 listeners between May 2014 and June 2015, they found that 96% of listeners felt that listening to these stories had increased their understanding of people with a serious illness or disability, 95% felt an increased understanding of immigrants, and 80% said these stories helped them see the value in everyone’s life story and experience. Further, 88% of listeners strongly agreed that StoryCorps makes them feel connected to people with different backgrounds; 80% felt that hearing other peoples’ stories humanized social issues, events, and policies; and 71% became interested in thinking about how society could be improved. Of course, this data is limited by the fact that the people who choose to listen to StoryCorps in the first place probably have, on average, a greater interest in learning about other peoples’ backgrounds than those who choose not listen to StoryCorps. While this is may be the case, this data still sheds light on the power of storytelling to change our perceptions of the world, and to remind us all of our shared humanity.
Humans of New York (HONY) started as a personal photography project by Brandon Stanton in 2010, and has since developed into a blog that captures photos and short quotes or longer stories that offer insights into people’s lives. HONY has over 18 million followers on Facebook and over 6 million followers on Instagram. While the interviews take place primarily in New York, Stanton has also conducted interviews in over twenty countries, including Iran, Mexico, and Russia.
While Stanton did not develop HONY with the specific goal of highlighting and mitigating health disparities, it has had some significant effects nevertheless. In 2015, Stanton’s blog post featuring a quote and picture of 13-year-old Vidal Chastanet in Brownsville, New York went viral, sparking a $1.2 million fundraiser to support the development of programs for Chastanet’s school. Brownsville has one of the highest crime rates in New York City, and improving education opportunities in that area could help mitigate crime rates and benefit the community as a whole.
Stanton’s post features a picture of the boy, who seems to smile behind pursed lips. Below the photo is a quote of him answering Stanton’s question: “Who’s influenced you the most in your life?” Chastanet replies, “My principal, Ms. Lopez. When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office… and she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter."
After interviewing Chastanet, Stanton got in contact with the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, Nadia Lopez. When asked about why she thought her story resonated with so many people, she responded, “I think because of the transparency, actually. When was the last time you heard a principal say, ‘I was broken and I didn’t want to go on?’” Lopez’s explanation highlights perfectly the powers of sharing personal narratives. Personal stories can make such an impact because they resonate with aspects of the reader’s or listener’s or viewer’s own experience, which helps them feel compassion for the person in the narrative.
Chastanet’s and Lopez’s school is not the only cause that gained public attention and financial support after being featured on HONY. Since realizing the blog’s influence, Stanton has used it to link to foundations supporting a variety of issues. In 2015, Stanton traveled to rural Pakistan to interview residents trapped in forced labor. After posting a series of photos and stories of Pakistanis there, HONY helped raise $2 million for organizations dedicated to ending the practice of forced labor. Further, since the development of HONY, hundreds of other “Humans of” blogs have started across the world.
HONY is significant because some people argue that raising compassion and awareness about an issue is pointless, as they claim people do not take action as a result. Stanton’s blog is one of many recent examples debunking this myth that spreading narratives via social media is not effective at leading people to take action. Further, the success of blogs such as HONY in sparking actual change highlights the power of storytelling over other social media campaigns that aim to raise awareness about various issues. Storytelling is distinct from simply “raising awareness” about an issue because stories can kindle compassion for the storyteller. Many awareness campaigns may not be as successful at sparking action because they do not necessarily take advantage of storytelling as a way to foster support for their cause.
Global Dialogues’ founder Dan Enger says that “we want to reach people not only in their minds, but in their hearts.” While metaphorical in its meaning, there is also a scientific basis to this goal. In particular, a neurological perspective helps underscore the impact that storytelling can have on our brains, and helps explain why personal stories are so powerful. According to neuroeconomist Paul Zac, “stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.” Zac has found that personal narratives with a dramatic arc cause an increase in listeners’ bodily production of oxytocin and cortisol. Oxytocin is a hormone that increases prosocial behavior. In his study, Zac found that changes in oxytocin levels had a positive correlation with participants’ feelings of empathy after viewing a film with a compelling story. He also found that participants who received additional oxytocin donated, on average, 56 percent more money to charity than did participants who received the placebo. Zac concluded that these findings suggest that “emotionally engaging narratives inspire post-narrative actions—in this case, sending money to a stranger […] It seems that once we are attentive and emotionally engaged, our brains go into mimic mode and mirror the behaviors that the characters in the story are doing or might do. As social creatures we are biased toward engaging with others, and effective stories motivate us to help others.”
There is a substantial body of research that seeks to explain why we are able to identify with the narrator when we hear personal stories. Researchers have found that during the process of storytelling, listeners’ brain responses become similar to the speaker’s brain responses. This observation implies that people understand each other by mirroring each other’s brain responses. This process is made possible in part by mirror neurons, which allow us to feel or experience some of what people in the narrative are experiencing. Mirror neurons help create for us the distress we see and hear on screen. This makes it so that we experience a story as powerfully as if it were happening to us.
Sociologists have also investigated the science of storytelling. Researchers have found that in political deliberations, storytelling helped participants to identify their own preferences, demonstrate their appreciation of competing preferences, advance unfamiliar views, and reach areas of unanticipated agreement. Public discussions are integral to strong democracies because they increase levels of civic engagement, the quality of policies, and citizens’ trust in political institutions. Sociology professor Francesca Polletta points out that “public discussion of hot-button political issues can yield areas of unanticipated agreement. Even if participants do not change their minds, they will likely come to recognize a greater range of preferences as legitimate. Once that recognition occurs, people are likely to accept a decision that does not match their preferences exactly.” Polletta adds, however, that in political and legal settings, the practice of abstract reasoning privileges existing powerful groups because those groups’ reasons are more likely to be heard as valid and convincing. She offers personal storytelling as an additional, or alternative type of legitimate discourse. “In a deliberative setting,” Polletta writes, “storytelling is equalizing, since everyone has his or her own story. By telling their stories, members of disadvantaged groups can gain an empathetic hearing for experiences and values that are unlike those of the majority. By showing how their particular experiences elude categories that are supposed to be universal, disadvantaged groups can expose the particularistic character of those principles. That is the first step to crafting more inclusive principles.”
 Baskerville, Delia. Developing cohesion and building positive relationships through storytelling in a culturally diverse New Zealand classroom. Teaching and Teacher Education 27 (2011) 107-115.
 Lee, John; Polletta, Fransesca. Is Telling Stories Good for Democracy? Rhetoric in Public Deliberation after 9/11. American Sociological Review, 2006, VOL. 71 (October:699–723).
 Francesca Polletta, Pang Ching Bobby Chen, Beth Gharrity Gardner, and Alice Motes. The Sociology of Storytelling. The Annual Review of Sociology 2011. 37:109–30.
 Zak, Paul. Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum, February 2015.
 Hasson, Uri; Frith, Chris. Mirroring and Beyond: coupled dynamics as a generalized framework for modelling social interactions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 5/5/2016, Vol. 371 Issue 1693, p1-9. 9p.