College of Liberal Arts

The Healing Power of Storytelling

Fri, May 25, 2018
Image by Frits Ahlefeldt, Flickr
Image by Frits Ahlefeldt, Flickr

Stories occupy a variety of roles in our lives. They can be everything from a feel-good childhood memory to a potent force that reflects a culture and drives social change. They should also be a tool in healthcare, according to Dr. Annie Brewster, the head of the Health Story Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that uses the healing power of storytelling to promote health.

Brewster came to The University of Texas at Austin to share her work and her own story as both a doctor and a patient with Multiple Sclerosis. After receiving her diagnosis, storytelling became a powerful tool for her to take control of her identity back.

“We use stories to tell us who we are and to understand ourselves,” Brewster said. “We have some control over this. We can decide how we make meaning. Most often this is unconscious, but it doesn’t have to be. I think therein lies the power of how we help people move towards health in the way they tell their stories.”

Brewster’s lecture was just one in UT Austin’s Health and Humanities Pop-Up Institute, a series of talks and seminars bringing together scholars, doctors and other professionals to further develop approaches to medicine that are both humanistic and holistic.

“We hope that the pop-up institute will assist​ in developing not only space for conversation but a crucially needed — and often elusive — common language among the humanities, sciences and social sciences,” noted the institutes organizers from the Humanities Institute and the Dell Medical School.

Brewster focused on the healing value of storytelling and how to partner narrative identity with physical healing. Currently, scientific mastery and efficiency are valued over patients’ stories in the healthcare industry. But according to Brewster, research has found that narrative variables or themes in patients’ personal stories can be more important indicators of positive mental and physical health than demographics.

Philosophy, psychology and science back up her thinking. To Brewster, this is evidence that medicine and the humanities aren’t these disparate groups with competing values and perspectives.

“We can use tools of science to engage deeply with personal stories,” Brewster said. “These two fields aren’t as dichotomous as we think and so we’re trying to draw them together.”

Previous events in the pop-up series explored the power of narrative and communication in the healing process, the importance of humanities in medical education and unequal access to quality healthcare, featuring lectures by Dr. Vanessa Grubb on racial disparities in kidney transplantation and UT Austin psychology professor James Pennebaker on expressive writing and health.

The keynote lecture for the Institute will feature Dr. Jonathan Metzl, who will discuss stigma and inequality in the healthcare system and changes to medical education. The event is free and open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, May 30 at noon in Health Discovery Building Auditorium on Trinity Street.

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