Tell me a (heart attack) story

by Carolyn Thomas       @HeartSisters

Before the start of each shiny new year, how I love sitting down with both my current calendar and my brand new one side by side. I like flipping through both, month by month, transferring all the important birthdays, anniversaries and already-booked dates from one to the other. For the past four years, those new calendar dates have included my upcoming public speaking events as I continue to take my WomenHeart presentations on the road each year.

Besides sharing some sobering facts and figures about the very serious diagnosis of heart disease (for example, heart disease kills six times more women each year than breast cancer does, and in fact, more women than all forms of cancer combined), my presentations are mostly facts wrapped up as stories. Women in my heart health presentation audiences may think that they’re just listening to my dramatic story of heart attack misdiagnosis and survival, but by the time I get through with them, they’ve also learned about cardiac risk factors, research, anatomy, symptoms, treatments and prevention. Research tells us that “storytelling is a vastly powerful tool.”  And here’s why. 

In his book called The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall traces the cultural and scientific connections between telling stories and the human brain.  Humans, he writes, are creatures of emotion as much as logic, and facts and arguments move us most when they are embedded in good stories. The world’s priests, politicians, and teachers have always known this by instinct, and so have the world’s marketers. His book explains further:

“What’s different now is a move to take storytelling beyond marketing and into all sectors of the world that involve communication and persuasion. Storytelling is increasingly seen as an essential skill.

“For humans, a story is like gravity. It’s this powerful and all-encompassing force that we hardly even notice because we are so used to it. But gravity is influencing us all the time, and story is too.”

“Marvel about the role of story in human life – from dreams, to reality shows, to urban legends, to religion, to pop songs, to the life stories that define our personal identities.

Consider something that neuroscientists call “neural coupling”, or that heady sense when you’re telling a good story that your audience is nodding in unison and acting as if they’re watching the events you’re describing unfold right before them.(1)

Princeton researchers, for example, observed the brain activity of both experienced storytellers and volunteers who later listened to their stories. When a brain region is active, it needs more blood to provide oxygen and nutrients.  This active region lights up on a screen during a functional MRI test. 

The study found that the brains of the volunteers listening to the storyteller were actually synchronized with hers. During a story, when she had activity in her insula (an emotional brain region), her listeners did, too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs.

By simply telling a good story, the storyteller could actually plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.  As the study’s lead author Dr. Uri Hasson explained:

“When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.”

Jonathan Gottschall added:

“Most of us think that our time in the provinces of storyland doesn’t shape or change us. 

“But research shows that story shapes humanity at the historical, cultural, and personal levels.

“Story is a vastly powerful tool.”

Stories also have appeal because they can capture interest and attention, enable recall of the story’s details by association, and bring facts to life by putting them into personal scenarios.  

When health care providers want to bring medical facts to life, presenting those facts embedded in stories, as Jonathan Gottschall described them, can be particularly effective.  A study reported in the journal Academic Medicine, for example, reported that doctors who choose and tell stories appropriately – especially if these are stories of their own clinical experiences – can stimulate listeners to examine their own values and attitudes in ways that would be hard or impossible to achieve by other methods.(2)

And there’s even a name for what happens when doctors learn to listen to the stories told by their patients. It’s called narrative medicine, and at least eight medical schools now offer med students courses in narrative medicine. 

Storytelling is in fact integral to medicine. McGill University professor Dr. Stephen Liben is also the Director of the Pediatric Palliative Care Program at The Montreal Children’s Hospital. He began to look at storytelling as a therapeutic tool in medicine over a decade ago. He explained:

“A lot of our existence in medicine is listening to people, reframing their story, then feeding it back to them. Who we are is an integral part of what we do, and we undervalue that at times in the formal medical curriculum.

“And it isn’t just touchy-feely stuff – how to improve the self is directly related to the ability to care for others.”


Newcomers GorgeVale GolfClub May09  P.S.  Have I mentioned, by the way, how wonderfully gorgeous my audiences are, and how much it means to me that women (and even some men!) continue to fill classrooms and auditoriums and hotel ballrooms to learn more about women’s heart disease? Amazing, and humbling.

(1)  Stephens GJ, Silbert LJ, Hasson U. “Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Aug 10;107(32):14425-30.
(2) Hensel WA, Rasco TL. “Storytelling as a method for teaching values and attitudes.” Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges [1992, 67(8):500-504]

Find out more about my upcoming presentations.

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote lots more about this topic in my new book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”  (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017).


See also:

Q: Has hearing somebody’s powerful story ever taught you a memorable lesson?


10 thoughts on “Tell me a (heart attack) story

  1. Hello Carolyn, I met you at one of your Cardiac Café presentations at the University of Victoria a couple years ago (you may remember my 2 sisters and I came over from Vancouver for a daytrip just to attend this talk – worth every penny!) I’m one of the thousands of people who have been totally convinced about the importance of taking care of our hearts thanks to the STORIES you told us. Those numbers and statistics will fade over time, but stories are an unforgettable way to get us to remember the important stuff forever. Thanks a lot for reminding us that when we have something big to say, there is NO BETTER WAY than wrapping it in a good story to illustrate our points.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi YVR – in fact, I DO remember you and your sisters (and in fact – speaking of the power of stories! – have told and retold the story of those three sisters from the mainland I met before my talk who had been on the first ferry of the day, arriving in time for coffee and muffins at UVic that morning!) I thought that was such a memorable sisterly thing to do. Nice to hear from you today – thank you.


  2. Absolutely correct. I’d much much rather listen to a real life survivor who know what it’s like than to a so-called “expert”. Many experts unfortunately have no clue other than what they’ve learned in books – and some of those books were decades ago in med school!

    Walk a mile in my shoes, or tell me a story of somebody who has walked in my shoes, and you have my full attention.


  3. You are so right. Whenever I listen to an “expert” (doctor or otherwise as some of the most helpful are actually other patients who are “experts” in their own bodies and what’s happening to them) one of the things I know is that I will quickly forget the facts and figures and medical terminology, but tell me a really riveting story and I will not only remember it, I’ll tell and retell that story to family and friends forever!

    Thanks so much for this great article. I’m a new subscriber to your website and think it’s wonderful.


  4. Ina May Gaskin, the foremother of American midwifery, has been telling stories from her very beginning. She believes that storytelling is a most powerful way to communicate. Spiritual Midwifery is an excellent example.


    1. Thanks so much for telling us about Ina May Gaskin. I just watched a mesmerizing video of her speaking after being given the 2011 Right Livelihood award (also called “the alternative Nobel Prize”) – what an amazing woman! During her acceptance speech, she spoke of visiting a Brazilian hospital where the C-section rate is 95%, the “factory model” of hospital-based maternity care, her own childbirth story of her first baby, and many more stories!


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