Survivors of a sunken landing craft are helped ashore on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. Photo via U.S. Military, Public Domain

Stories More Powerful than Morphine

Posted by on April 21st, 2012

Survivors of a sunken landing craft are helped ashore on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. (Photo via U.S. Military, Public Domain)

Before my wife and I left on this trip, we downloaded a ton of Radiolab episodes to my laptop and our iPods. If you’re not familiar with Radiolab, I’d encourage you to check them out. As far as I’m concerned the people behind the show are some of our best modern storytellers. In the few months that I’ve listened to them, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what makes a good story, both on the radio and in general.

I recently stumbled upon an episode from way back in 2007 about the placebo effect. The episode is about an hour-long and you can listen to it here. But what I want to talk about is a particular segment that begins 13 minutes into the program, it’s a story about stories and how they can actually change the way we feel, even take away pain.

This segment highlights the work of Dr. Henry Beecher who discovered something amazing in the middle of battle during World War II. Cut off from resupply, without enough morphine to treat all the wounded soldiers, Beecher found that many of them didn’t actually need the drug. Men with serious wounds seemed to have a higher pain tolerance in the heat of battle than those with similar injuries back in the States.

It’s worth your time to listen to the segment and their explanation of the hows and whys, but the gist of it is this: wounded soldiers had higher pain tolerances because they were telling themselves a better story. They were alive, their wounds were for a cause, they might get sent home and even awarded a medal. Provided they survived there was a good chance that these soldiers’ lives were going to get better.

The effect of this story was so profound it did more than give them a positive outlook, it actually changed the way they felt, sometimes it even took away the pain from horrible injuries.

Now you might think this has more to do with medical science than it does with the art of storytelling, but I think it illustrates something incredibly important about stories. Stories are hardwired into us. From the time we can comprehend language (and possibly before) we are fascinated by stories. There is a deep power in narrative that has the ability to change us in both mind and body.

Reminders like this, about how important stories are to us as humans, motivate me to make sure the stories I’m telling are good ones.

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