Narrative Medicine


Storytelling is more than just entertainment – new research shows that creating narratives can lift our moods, and even fight the symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Orson "I Am Orson Welles!" Welles, unleashing his formidable narrative powers.

A group of neuropsychiatric researchers at the University of Missouri’s Sinclair School of Nursing tested a storytelling program called TimeSlips on nursing home patients suffering from senile dementia, the journal Nursing Research reports. Instead of focusing on factual memory, the TimeSlips method focuses on asking a group open-ended questions, to encourage imaginative brainstorming:

TimeSlips stories spring from hour-long, group storytelling workshops with people with memory loss.  A facilitator begins a workshop with a provocative image, invites creative responses, and weaves all answers – from the profound to the non-sensical – into a story.

Though this research is still in its early stages, the results so far are exciting – for weeks after a session, participants display improved communication skills, are more eager to start conversations, and say chatting with others is a more pleasurable activity than before. What’s even more incredible is that these improvements occur whether or not the patient can remember the storytelling session.1

The TimeSlips program is similar to an emerging – and still controversial – set of ideas known as narrative medicine. Unlike the freewheeling narratives developed in TimeSlips sessions, the field of narrative medicine is based on the concept that by crafting a meaningful story about a patient’s illness and path to recovery, it’s possible to improve that person’s chances of actually achieving that recovery:

It’s hard, sometimes, to give a simple definition, but in a diagnostic sense, the label of “sickness” becomes secondary to the life of the person who has a particular sickness. In order for a person to get well, there has to be a story, one that everyone believes, that leads the individual back to health.

Though this may sound like fringe science, schools as prestigious as Columbia University are now offering master’s degrees in narrative medicine. It makes more sense when you consider this method in another context – it’s essentially a placebo effect without the pill. To a certain extent, belief in a treatment’s effectiveness increases its actual effectiveness.

It also seems to point to a more underlying principle: the way our bodies respond to the world depends largely on our perceptions and expectations about how the world works. When we modify those interpretations – consciously or otherwise – we reshape our bodies’ responses as well.

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1. This is one manifestation of what’s known as procedural memory – essentially, memory for how to perform a task. Patients with severe amnesia (such as Alzheimer’s sufferers) can form and retain new procedural memories about as well as healthy subjects, despite the fact that they have no memory of the actual learning process.

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