Storytelling, Healing and Genetics: new directions

Andre B. Heuer, D.Min. LICSW

This non-academic article for Northlands Storytelling Network organization was meant to create an interest within the storytelling community in the scientific research that gives support for their work with storytelling as a healing art.

In June of 2011 I received a request from the Genetic Alliance to present at their 25th annual conference on the use of storytelling for healing. My initial response was panic. I wondered if I was prepared to address the topic in a way that would meet their needs. My interest in genetics and ways to encourage gene expression to foster healing of mind, body and soul through story are an important part of my personal study but I never considered myself an expert. However, the program director of the Genetic Alliance assured me that my experience with story and healing would make a contribution to the discussion. The representative explained that my work with story supported the Alliance’s mission to promote awareness and understanding of genetic disorders so services for people affected by genetic conditions could be developed and made available. Her words were assuring and I said, “Yes.”

In a conference call preceding the event I met my co-presenters, Ellen Ficklen, an editor for Narrative Matters; Maggie Kruesi, a librarian at the Library of Congress’ American Folk Life Center; and Sarah Wagoner, a project manager for The Parent’s Letter Project. The focus of their presentations was that story informs, advocates and supports those facing the challenges of a genetic disease. My presentation aimed to explain why and how storytelling encourages healing.

I began my presentation with a story of my work and then proceeded to explain three pertinent discoveries in neuroscience that I believed were essential in discussing storytelling and healing:

  • Novel and enriching life experiences and physical exercise can activate neurogenesis…(1)
  • …such experiences can turn on gene expression (2) within minutes throughout the brain and body to guide growth, development and healing.
  • Whenever we recall an important memory, nature opens up the possibility for us to reconstruct it on the molecular level within our brain. (3)

In the light of these discoveries, I suggested that to work effectively with story as a healing modality we need to understand:

  • the ways stories are created and told,
  • how healing in storytelling happens not only in the telling and hearing of a story but in the creation of story.
  • gene expression and the effects of the environment on gene expression or what is called epigenetics
  • ultradian rhythms (4) of learning, creativity and activity/rest. 

In order to demonstrate the use of storytelling for healing I spoke of a storytelling-focused therapeutic approach I developed for working with individuals who suffered acute and/or chronic illness and/or various forms of trauma. I also cited an example of a therapy technique called Narrative Exposure Therapy that is based on the telling of story. In Liberia, I conducted trainings for lay counselors in the use of story to treat war trauma. Many of the counselors were also war trauma victims. In the session, the counselors created a character by becoming aware of a place of discomfort, pain or distress in their body. I asked them to intensify their body sensation and identify words that best described their experience. These words were used to create a body movement, sound and sketch of a story character. The next step was for each of them to create a second character opposite or counter to the first using a similar method to the first character. Again a movement, a sound and a character sketch were created.

Once the counselors created the two characters they imagined a meeting of the two characters in which the characters learn from each other and come to terms with their conflict. The counselors then paired off, sharing their stories with their partners and retelling their partner’s story. This way each person was able to both tell and listen to his or her own story. After the stories were told the counselors did their movement and sound of both characters in the group. At first, they switched back-and-forth from one character to the other, then slowly they combined their two movements into one continuous movement and used their sound to create a rhythm. The sound of each counselor blended with the others into a wonderful rhythmic beat. The movement and the beat combined into a celebratory community dance. In one group a call and response burst out. This spontaneous combustion of sound, song, dance and movement lasted about a half hour. 

At the end, the counselors reported a sense of healing, well-being and a different understanding of their physical discomfort. Most understood that the distress in their body was associated with trauma suffered during the Liberian Civil War. In the story the participants created a bridge between characters to help heal. The movement and dance reinforced that bridge. This technique provided healing on two levels. The story and initial movement was an expression of individual inner healing. The dancing, along with the call and response, facilitated community and cultural healing. In African culture, story and dance often go hand-in-hand. Simply put, the process encouraged moving from isolation to relationship with self, community and culture. This example caught the imagination of the conference attendees and gave rise to conversations on ways to use the psycho/social genomic (5) to foster public health.

The next section of my conference presentation gave evidence to suggest that the use of story can encourage neurogenesis/brain growth. Used with trauma survivors, Narrative Exposure Therapy (6) is a structured storytelling process of usually four to eight sessions focused on survivors creating, telling and hearing their story. In a Narrative Exposure Therapy study, the study indicated that the communication between parts of the brain that recognize and re-appraise danger improve and reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This would indicate Narrative Exposure Therapy fosters neurogenesis on the molecular level (7).

Throughout the presentation I shared many stories. The stories that sparked the most interest were of my conversation in Alaska with a tribal doctor named Rita, and my experience in Liberia with counselors. Rita and I initially focused on sharing our stories about how our dreams, visions and stories shaped our journeys. I told her of how my family would share our dreams in the morning trying to find their meaning. She told me how her dreams taught her the ways different plants heal and her visions guided her in her path to become a tribal doctor.

As our conversation continued I asked if she still had visions, dreams and stories.

She said, "No."

I questioned her again, "Is it because you are living your vision, dreams and story?"

She said, "No" again.

After a pause she leaned forward, touched her heart and said, "I am my vision, I am my dream, and I am my story."

Later in the presentation I shared the story of my experience in Liberia of telling the tribal doctor story to a group of Liberian counselors with the Center of Victims of Torture. Their response was immediate and they acknowledged their agreement with the notion “I am my story.”

However they continued the story, "We are our family story, we are our communities’ story, and we are our clan’s story."

In these two cultures they understand that stories are not products outside of one self but are “who they are.” This notion is what sparked interest among many of the participants. They understood from a genetic and epigenetic perspective that we are our stories. Our DNA is a story that continues to unfold, and shapes and influences the way the story is told. Population and evolutionary genetics helps us understand where we came from hundreds of thousands of years ago and that our genetic history influences our present and future.

After the presentation a teenager came up to me and asked if I would help her tell her story. I agreed. She told me about her metabolic genetic disease and how the disease usually leads to death within a few days of birth. She spoke of what it is like growing up knowing that she could die at any moment and in our conversation she said, “I can’t count the number of times I have almost died.”  As I helped her with her story I was touched and more than a few times brought to tears.

The challenges for the storytelling community are the need to understand the psycho/social dynamics of genetics and the role that our art can play in enhancing lives and fostering healing. We are entering a new era. For the ancient art of storytelling to continue and grow as a source of pleasure, comfort and healing, we will need to understand our art in a deeper and subtler way. I believe understanding genomics
 is the door to this understanding.     

1 Growth of brain cells, neurons, synapses
2 The ability of genes to produce proteins that give rise to certain effects and characteristics 
3 Rossi, E., (2002). The Psychobiology of Gene Expression. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Preface.
4 Ultradian rhythms are recurrent periods or cycles repeated throughout a 24-hour circadian day. 
5 The study of how genes express and the results of those expression
6 Schauer, M.; Neuner,F.; Elbert, T. (2005) Narrative Exposure Therapy: A  Short Intervention for Traumatic Stress Disorders after War, Terror, or Torture. Hogrefe Publishing.
7 Adenauer, Hannah, (2010) Processing of threat cues: psychophysiological correlates of posttraumatic stress disorder and changes through psychotherapy. Dissertation


Andre Heuer D.Min. LICSW is a storyteller and a licensed clinical social worker who has conducted trainings in the use of story for healing for war and torture victims in Liberia with the Center of Victims and in Thailand with SalusWorld. He also uses his approach to work with individual’s suffering acute and chronic illness. He has conducted workshops in storytelling and healing across the country.