Brain Science and Storytelling -- Learning about Self-Transformation from Neuroscience, Narrative Psychology & Indigenous Healing: Interview with Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona | Episode 31

NOTE: This podcast originally aired on March 12, 2019 here:

Well before we had writing and certainly before we had powerpoint, people were sharing stories. When it comes to suicide, we must “tell a more powerful tale” — one of resilience and redemption. When we cultivate stories that describe experiences of coming through unimaginable suicidal despair or suicide grief, storytellers “make meaning” and broader societal changes are possible. In other words, storytelling is good for the storyteller, and when done safely and effectively, it is good for the listener and can powerfully shift culture. In this interview Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona and I talk about the neurobiology and cultural implications of the power of the story to heal.

About Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona is the author of the “Coyote Trilogy,” (1998, 2003 & 2005), “Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process” (2007), “Healing the Mind through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry” (2010) and “Remapping Your Mind: The Neuroscience of Self-Transformation through Story” (2015). A Stanford educated MD, Mehl-Madrona is familiar with brain science and pharmacology, and while he does not eschew Western medicine when it is helpful, he seeks to find additional answers and alternatives to well-being. Inspired by his Cherokee grandmother’s storytelling and tapping into Lakota, Cherokee and Cree traditions of healing, he has spent his career understanding how storytelling converges with neurobiology.

Mehl-Medrona and others involved in Narrative Psychology have noticed the power of stories to transform our lives and shift our inner voices from victim and chaos to redemption and honor. The spiritual journey and healing use of storytelling has been at the cultural center of many indigenous peoples including the Maori, Africans, Mongolians, Aborigines, and Inuit for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and there is much we can learn from the oldest living cultures on earth.  For generations within many tribal communities storytelling is valued for it healing capacity, especially when connected with ritual. Paula Gunn Allen, a Laguna/Sioux writer describes “medicine stories” as ceremonial narratives that alter states of consciousness — creating connection between body and spirit. In other words, language in the form of narrative is medicine (ardenhegele, 2017). For Mehl-Madrona, what we can learn from these native traditions is the mindset of narrative medicine, and that these values and practices are portable across cultures. 

Frustrated with how conventional medicine ignored the experiences of the patient, Mehl-Madrona believes that by crafting our personal, family, and cultural narratives, we can reshape the dysfunctional patterns of our lives and the larger worlds in which we interact. While modern medicine has made tremendous advances, both the speed of interaction and the high-tech approach has created more distance between the healer and the helped. The practice of storytelling as a healing practice can help bridge this gap.

In his book, “Healing the Mind through the Power of Story,” Mehl-Madrona explains that many people who are suffering emotionally are not defective or ill, requiring drugs to “fix them”; instead what needs “fixing” are the sabotaging internalized stories that have seriously challenged their self- and world-view. The healing then comes from “telling a more powerful tale” about their lives. We construct story to reduce the chaos of our experience.

Show Notes

United Suicide Survivors International:

Webinar on storytelling and suicide:

VIDEO: Stanford School of Business “Science of Storytelling”

TEDx Talk by David Phillips “The magical science of storytelling”

TEDx Talk “Stopping Suicide with Story”

Narrative Therapy

Hero’s Journey Story Structure and Trauma Recovery

Healing Camp — Making Meaning Together

Audience Effects

Atlantic: Trauma Inherited

BOOK cover remapping your mind.jpeg

Mehl-Madrona, L. (1998). Coyote Medicine: Lessons from Native American Healing. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, Bear & Company.

Mehl-Madrona, L. (2003). Coyote Healing: Miracles in Native Medicine. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, Bear & Company.

Mehl-Madrona, L. (2005). Coyote Wisdom: The Power of Story in Healing. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, Bear & Company.

Mehl-Madrona, L. (2007). Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, Bear & Company.

Healing the Mind.jpeg

Mehl-Madrona, L. (2010). Healing the Mind through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, Bear & Company.