Paolo Rossi Castelli 17 June 2021 7 min read

Stories reduce pain - here’s the proof

Research published in the scientific journal PNAS clearly shows the effects of ‘storytelling’ on a group of children in the Intensive Care Unit of a Brazilian hospital.

Storytelling, the art of telling stories, has been with Mankind since it appeared on the planet. In recent years, it has become very popular, as shown by the increase in podcasts and audio books, which have spread notably during the pandemic.

Cinema, literature, oral and written traditions, comics and theatre - in whatever form, humans like storytelling because it momentarily takes them to parallel worlds and allows them to experience feelings and situations far from reality or find situations seen as similar to their own, distancing the feeling of solitude.

Voluntary associations which read stories to the sick, especially paediatric patients, have been active in the therapeutic field in various countries for many years. In some cases, storytelling is promoted by hospitals and treatment centres and integrated into courses of treatment.

However, to date, there has been little research specifically designed to measure any physiological effects of the story.

Now, very strict, yet simple, experimentation (carried out in real conditions, without any experimental conditioning) has tried to fill the gap, as the scientific journal PNAS reports.

Tests in brazil

Brazilian psychologists and paediatricians from the Federal University of ABC, Sao Paolo, and ‘D'Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR)’, Rio de Janeiro, which sponsors scientific studies for health promotion based on very strict criteria, selected 81 children aged 2-7 years of age admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of São Luiz Jabaquara Hospital, in Sao Paolo, for disorders such as asthma, respiratory difficulties and pneumonia.

They were divided into two groups and, for overlapping periods of time (25-30 minutes), one group had the chance to listen to stories read by volunteers from the ‘Viva e Deixe Viver’ association; the stories were chosen from books on sale (selected by the children themselves). The other group were given riddles to solve.

Saliva samples were taken from all the children before and after the readings or riddles to check the effects of storytelling through the measurement of both cortisol, the hormone indicating a stressful situation, and oxytocin, released when pleasing feelings of empathy are felt.

In  addition, the children were asked to answer a subjective test to assess the level of pain (before and after taking part in the activity). Lastly, the children also took part in a game of free word association, looking at 7 people from the hospital context (nurse, doctor, hospital, medicine, patient, pain and book) and expressing their thoughts.

Well, the children in the storytelling group showed a marked increase in oxytocin, combined with a reduction of cortisol. They also showed less pain and discomfort compared to the others and used much more positive concepts when they looked at the 7 pictures. In detail, the children in the storytelling group said that the nurse came to treat when they saw the picture while the children in the riddles group saw the nurse as the person that gives injections.

The perception of the picture of the doctor was also different - for the children in the riddles group, it made them think of the place where people go when they’re ill while for the children in the storytelling group, it recalled the place where people go to be treated.

A help for parents too

In addition to these benefits, the researchers highlight how reading out loud helps staff to have an empathic relationship with children and family members, and how parents can play a key role in this as, in turn, they are potential readers.

Lastly, the authors recall how reading a story can be positive in any stressful situation. For example, to help children to overcome the traumas linked to the deaths caused by the pandemic, which has been especially serious in Brazil.

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Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by corriere.it on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.