Why Stories Matter

Humans are the storytelling animal.[1][2] It is our stories that define us, connect us, comfort us, and (if we let them) heal us. They are how our ancestors transmitted information from person to person and from generation to generation. Stories are how we learn from the past and prepare for the future.[3]

For many years, stories were also at the heart of the practice of medicine. Hippocrates understood that his effectiveness as a healer and a teacher was tied to his ability to tell the stories of his patients and their experiences.[4] For centuries, medical knowledge (limited though it was) was transmitted primarily through case reports–detailed stories about an individual patient, their signs, their symptoms and how they did or didn’t respond to treatment.[5]

But as medicine moved from reliance on anecdotes to empirical evidence, stories fell out of favor. With the development of pathologic anatomy and germ theories in the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively, disease began to be seen as separable from the patient’s body. Disease was the result of external forces to be understood rather than a unique experience afflicting an individual.[6] And with the rise of the randomized control trial and evidence based medicine in the 20th century, we as a profession not only ceased to rely on storytelling but to reject it completely. “Science has stood as the opposite of storytelling, seeking to replace old wives tales with provable generalizations.”[7]

But at the beginning of the 21st century, some in medicine began to circle back to the recognition that our humanity and the stories that are so deeply entwined in it are impossible to excise from the work that we do in medicine4. “Over the course of our careers, we accumulate hundreds, thousands of stories…myths and legends that circulate the wards as slyly as MRSA”.[8]

To deny ourselves the opportunity to tell the stories of our lives in medicine is to deny ourselves a powerful tool for healing. There is a large body of evidence that crafting the story of an emotional or traumatic experience can have surprisingly restorative effects.

Stories also have a powerful ability to connect us. Recent research shows that the sharing of stories creates a unique bond between the storyteller and their audience. Listening to stories results in a “neural coupling” in which the listener’s brain is engaged in a way that mimics the brain activity of the storyteller.[9] This connection between storyteller and their audience is further amplified when strong emotions are being conveyed.[10] Similarly, there is a deep body of literature describing the rich cognitive and emotional reactions that are triggered when engaging in a story.[11][12]

So, we hope that the contents of this anthology will live up to all of the promise that stories hold. We hope that they will be an intimate record of the thoughts and feelings of students whose medical education was uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest that rocked the Twin Cities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. We hope that they will provide readers with a sense of connection as captivating as it is authentic. And finally, we hope that they will remind you that narrative is still the beating heart of medicine, tying us deeply to our patients, our colleagues, and who we are as human beings.

Ben Trappey, MD, Maren E. Olson, MD, MPH, MEd, Anthony Williams, MD, MS
Associate Directors, University of Minnesota Medical School’s Center for the Art of Medicine

  1. Swift, Graham. Waterland. Scribner, 2019.
  2. Rushdie, Salman. Luka and the Fire of Life. Vintage, 2010.
  3. Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Mariner. 2013.
  4. Charon R. Literature and Medicine: Origins and Destinies. Acad Med. 2000;75:23–7
  5. Nissen T, Wynn R. The recent history of the clinical case report: a narrative review. JRSM Short Rep. 2012;3(12):87
  6. Charon R. Literature and Medicine: Origins and Destinies. Acad Med. 2000;75:23–7
  7. Gabriel, Yiannis. Storytelling in Organizations. Oxford Univ. Press. 2000
  8. Ofri D. The passion and the peril: Storytelling in medicine. Acad Med [Internet]. 2015;90(8):1005–6
  9. Liu, Yichuan, et al. "Measuring speaker–listener neural coupling with functional near infrared spectroscopy." Scientific reports 7.1 (2017): 1-13
  10. Smirnov, Dmitry, et al. "Emotions amplify speaker–listener neural alignment." Human brain mapping 40.16 (2019): 4777-4788
  11. Habermas, Tilmann. Emotion and narrative: Perspectives in autobiographical storytelling. Cambridge University Press, 2018
  12. Mar, Raymond A., et al. "Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading." Cognition & emotion 25.5 (2011): 818-833


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