The Neuroscience of Teaching Narratives: Facilitating Social and Emotional Development

Lisa Whalen


Humanities and the sciences have long been considered polar opposites that exist in separate realms of academia and require different cognitive skills. However, neuroscience has brought about renewed interest in what we can learn about the human brain by investigating links between disciplines. For example, studies related to English literature have revealed that the benefits of reading narratives (fiction and nonfiction stories) extend far beyond language development and include increased competence in social and emotional functioning. By combining the results of an original dissertation study and a review of past and current research in education, psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience, this essay explores how reading narratives serves as practice for managing emotions and social interactions in everyday life. In fact, several studies suggest that reading narratives strengthens nearly every part of the brain because the brain is designed—or “wired”—to think and learn in terms of narratives, regardless of subject matter. This essay provides several types of support for the claim that reading narratives facilitates social and emotional development. Research discussed includes studies showing that reading narratives is not a solitary activity but “a surprisingly social process” (Krakovsky, 2006, p. 1) and is linked to increased ability to view people and events from multiple perspectives, increased empathy for others, and increased ability to interpret social cues (Atkins, 2000; Courtright, Mackey, & Packard, 2005; Davis, 1980; Greif & Hogan, 1973; Harrison, 2008; Mar, 2004; Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz, & Peterson, 2006; Stanovich & West, 1989). Understanding how the brain processes narratives and relates them to real life functioning has important implications for many disciplines, such as psychology, in its attempt to understand and treat post-traumatic stress disorder. This essay, however, focuses on the implications for education. Teachers striving to help students develop the perspective-taking abilities necessary for critical thinking and the empathy necessary to become responsible adults may be more effective if they understand the role narratives play in students’ social and emotional development.


neuroscience, narratives, social development, emotional development

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