Take this story and call me in the morning

Are you a machine? Is your body like a very intricate watch, a complex system of mechanisms and feedback loops? Are you just a flesh and blood cyborg?

Sounds kind of creepy, doesn’t it? And yet, that’s precisely how many people think about the human body. In fact, if you ever go to a serious conference where serious people give serious presentations about serious body-related research, you might very well come away with the impression that everything that happens inside your skin is simply the product of measureable, predictable and mindless forces.

Well, take heart. Your body is far more than just a collection of molecular gears and levers. There’s a powerful monkeywrench in that idea, one that undermines the mechanistic, cause-and-effect explanation of our bodies and our lives. That monkeywrench is story.

Story is everywhere in our lives, but we see its power most vividly in the placebo effect. A sneaky researcher gives us an sugar pill or procedure that may or may not include an active ingredient–if we believe we’ve received something of value, the body tricks itself into getting better and our health and performance actually improves. Likewise, if we believe that the “sugar cube” contains a toxin of some sort, we’ll respond by becoming ill and weak. This is the nocebo effect.

Placebo and nocebo effects are often described as great medical mysteries, but when we get right down to it, we begin to realize that they are nothing more than stories. A placebo delivers a promise and an expectation that powers our belief and in turn, our bodies, our physiology, and our ideas. Stories can change the trajectory of everything we do and everything we can become.

There are hundreds of examples in which stories influence our health and performance, but a few are particularly vivid. In one famous case, psychologist Carol Dweck primed groups of students with two simple stories. She told one group that intelligence is a fixed, unalterable quality; you’ve either got it or you don’t. In another, students were told that intelligence is plastic; it’s something that we can develop through effort, concentration and practice. The results were clear: students who heard the story of static intelligence were more likely to become frustrated, give up prematurely and perform at a lower level. Students who heard the story of plastic intelligence were more persistent and resilient in the face of challenge.

At Harvard, undergraduates who were studying for the graduate record exam (GRE), were given a practice test. Prior to the test, they were told that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half the students were told that “research suggests that people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better. If you feel anxious during the practice test, you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.” The other half of the group was simply allowed to experience their stress without additional instruction.

As it turned out, simply hearing the story about the potential benefits of stress significantly improved students’ performance. These students scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group. A couple of months later, the students turned in their real GRE scores; the group that was primed to see anxiety as beneficial scored 65 points higher than the controls.

In another classic study at Harvard, psychologist Ellen Langer assembled a group of 84 hotel housekeepers and told half of the group that “the work you do is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle." Examples of how their work was exercise were provided; the control group received no instruction. Four weeks later, Langer returned to take measurements: the control group hadn’t changed physically, but the test group showed decreases in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. In other words, the story contributed to their physical transformation.

The implications of these examples penetrate deep into the very fabric of our daily lives. As the research shows, stories have the power to modify our intelligence, our performance under stress and our very physiology. In common conversation, we rarely give much thought to the stories that we tell or to their downstream effects on our bodies, our health and our culture, but stories are not neutral.

Stories matter. They affect our brains and bodies, ever minute of every day. Stories lead our attention and in turn, our physiology, our emotional experience, our world view and our behavior. And so it’s vital that we listen to our narratives and it’s particularly crucial that we pay attention to “nocebo stories” that paint our world as a dangerous, hostile and hopeless place.

Many of these stories circulate through modern culture:

“We live in a toxic, alien environment that is crushing the human body, mind and spirit.”

“Our food supply is being poisoned by large corporate interests who are intent on making us addicted to sugar, salt and fat.”

“Our political system is hopelessly dysfunctional and deadlocked, corrupted by money and naked greed.”

These stories may well be true, but they are not the only truths. Other stories are equally true:

“Human ingenuity and creativity is astonishing in its breadth and scope.”

“The human brain is incredibly plastic and neuro-optimism is the way of the future. We know the formula for learning and transformation: high-quality repetitions with attentional engagement; if we follow this formula, there is no limit to what we can become.”

“The human mind, body and spirit are incredibly resilient.”

“We know the formula for health: vigorous movement, real food, stress education and positive social experience.”

“By far, most people want the best for one another and for the future.”

Obviously, we live in a physical and biological world, one in which certain laws apply. Facts are facts. Reality must not be ignored. But when it comes to creating our bodies and our future, the world is what we make of it. We have a choice of the stories that we tell and in turn, our effect upon the world.

So next time you tell a story, think again. The tone of your narrative will change the body and life of your listeners.

And that, in turn, will be contagious.