Can Listening to Stories Alter Your Consciousness?
According to Brian W. Sturm, Assistant Professor at the University of Carolina, listening to stories can alter your state of consciousness from that of “normal” waking consciousness to an entranced state. Researchers are calling this state of mind the “Storylistening Trance”.
But first let’s begin with a story! Are you sitting comfortably?
"Far-li-mas, today the day has arrived when you must cheer me. Tell
me a story." "The performance is quicker than the command," said
Far-li-mas, and began. The king and his guests forgot to drink, forgot
to breathe. The slaves forgot to serve. They, too, forgot to breathe.
For the art of Far-li-mas was like hashish, and, when he had ended,
all were as though enveloped in a delightful swoon. The king had
forgotten his thoughts of death. Nor had any realized that they were
being held from twilight until dawn; but when the guests departed
they found the sun in the sky. (Campbell 1969, 153–54) from "What
Happens When You Really Listen"
In Sturm’s exploratory research, people who had listened to a story were interviewed in an attempt to find out what this altered state of consciousness was.
Responses to stories are highly individual, claims Sturm. Louise Rosenblatt (1978, 12) put forward the theory that there may be two parts to the experience of listening to a story being told. First there is the “text” (the story as told) and then the “poem”. The poem is a secondary creation, an individual world that the story listener creates. Story listeners construct a “reality” of richly layered personal stories which although based on the verbal text, are overlaid with personal images, memories and experiences. In other words, listening to a story is deeply experiential and highly personal.
Sturm attended live storytelling events in the search for any indications of an altered state of consciousness. He looked for any noteworthy elements of the telling and the teller (i.e., rhythm, pacing, facial expressions, etc.), and also considered the storytelling environment (i.e., climate control, noise, distractions, etc.) which might induce trance state. Finally, he noted the story content and style of its telling. He then asked the story listeners about their experiences.
Interviews with participants revealed that when their attention was fully focused on a story, there was a sense of going into another space, and of time distortion, that their subjective time was moving at a different speed than objective time. Sturm concluded that engagement with a story was based on 4 distinct phases:
Being out and stepping in;
Being in and moving through;
Being in and stepping out;
Stepping out and objectifying the experience.
This fourth phase involves the way in which the reader uses the information. This is where the story listener will start to integrate the symbolism and meaning of the story in a significant way in their personal life. I have witnessed this myself at my Story Cafes, and my own research indicated that stories could “live on” as it were, as guidance or sense-making or even self-care. Sturm’s research also discovered that there were bodily and kinaesthetic responses to listening to a story; and these were similar to trance bodily experiences, such as sighing, moaning, shivering. The rhythms of oral storytelling seemed work similarly to use of rhythm to induce trance in ritualistic situations. It is also interesting to note that Sturm could find absolutely no reference in research of the story listening trance inducing psychosis. The more subtle flow of storytelling rhythms within the context of a safe environment contributed to the soothing effect upon the listeners’ minds.
Sturm discovered another significant element to the story listening trance which he called “Time Distortion”. Which reminds me of an explanation I was once offered by a drut’syla, a professional Jewish storyteller, of the use of the traditional phrase “Once Upon a Time”. When a storyteller begins in this way, she is declaring that her story exists out of our normal time and space continuum. In other words the storyteller and the story listener are being given permission for allowing ourselves to be transported to another world entirely. There was a practical reason too, for if a storyteller performed to powerful people, the chance of being accused of slander was mitigated, should one of her characters bore a strong resemblance to a VIP, politician or king in the room!
His research participants talked about strong identification with characters to the point of empathy and emotional involvement, from observing or seeing vivid images in their mind of the world painted by the storyteller, to feeling that they actually were inhabiting that world. Said one, "I just kind of fall into a different world”. Listening to stories also transported the listener to their childhood experiences, so that they vividly re-experienced and re-immersed themselves in those feelings rather than simply remembering that a tale was “familiar”.
Interestingly, participants in the research who had nursing or teaching occupations reported that their training and their social roles were a barrier to deep story listening, attributing this to having minds trained in critical assessment of people and situations.
Maybe the relational aspect of listening within a group enhances the therapeutic nature of story (or indeed poem)? Certainly biblio-poetry therapeutic practice as promoted by Hynes and Hynes Berry (which underpins my work with stories, poetry and creative writing) has established the restorative nature of listening to literature in a supportive environment reflecting with others.
I wholeheartedly agree with the researcher that further research is needed into the impacts of metaphor and story listening upon human consciousness, and importantly the impacts and effectiveness of the story listening trance as a healing or therapeutic tool.
So, when did you last listen to a story which had you spellbound?
Hynes, A.M. and M. Hynes-Berry (1986). Biblio/Poetry Therapy. The Interactive Process: A Handbook. St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc. 3rd Edition (2012)
Rosenblatt, Louise M. 1978. The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional
theory of the literary work. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press.