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Telling your life story is like chocolate for the brain

Ordinary stories, extraordinary benefits – Rebecca Skinner explains how recalling one’s life, especially as we get older, is hugely beneficial for both physical and mental health.

We know from history that mankind has always told stories of life; carving, scratching and painting onto rock, bones, skins, bamboo and bark. The need to tell stories is essential, apparently even more important than love and shelter.

Now scientific research is revealing how recalling life events has a host of physical and emotional benefits.

Dr Gene Cohen, author of The Mature Mind, believes it is critical saying, “Autobiography for older adults is like chocolate for the brain”. He says brain scans on people reminiscing, aged in their 70s and 30s, found the entire hippocampus “lit up”in the older group, while the 30-year-olds utilised only one small part of the left hippocampal region.

This stimulates the hippocampus, the important part of our brain which covers learning and remembering Young people can also benefit from recalling emotional upheavals. Research by James W. Pennebaker and Janel D Seagal, from the University of Texas, in their scientific paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, discovered benefits including four separate improvements to immune function, lowering pain levels, a decrease in sickness and depression and even improved exam grades.

The first author began work in the area over a decade ago, asking university students to recollect their feelings about traumatic experiences as part of a laboratory experiment. As a result they reported greater control over their lives which often changed for the better.

Since then positive health effects have been found with maximum-security prisoners; distressed crime victims; arthritis and chronic pain sufferers; men laid off from their jobs and women after delivering their first child. Benefits were found regardless of social class and ethnicity in a variety of countries around the world.

Other research into telling life stories has involved the elderly, showing it increases self-worth. Often older people feel less able to contribute and, as a result, their lives appear less fulfilling. Sharing their stories enables them to contribute something worthwhile that will help educate future generations. Of course, it also takes their minds off their limitations and is particularly helpful to those facing memory loss and dementia as it helps prompt past experiences and emotions.

Sharing one’s life stories is also important because humans are not meant to live in isolation. We all want to feel we have impacted on the world and on others. It is something we can contribute – to family members and those generations to come.

For both 94-year-old great grandfather, John Dwyer, and 88-year-old grandmother, Dutch-born Anne Hoskins, having their life stories made into a book was a particularly beneficial experience. For John, having lost his beloved wife of 70 years not long before, it proved very cathartic. He also says it has made him a bit of a local celebrity, with people coming to visit just to see his book.

For Anne it was a chance to finally recall her survival in one of the worst prisoner-of-war camps during World War 11. Much of her story came as a revelation for Anne’s family. Her daughter, Allison Watkiss says, “Mum never talked much about her time during the war, so reading this gave me more of an insight into what she, her mother and sister endured. It will be such a lovely memento for all the family and for some of mum’s close friends.”

For anyone, whatever their experiences, recalling their life story helps them come to terms with any regrets while acknowledging achievements. It helps confront memories, helping them discover how they have affected their beliefs and actions, which may have held them back from living life to its fullest. Recollecting can help individuals grow, whatever age they are.

It’s also a hugely valuable legacy for younger generations who need to understand where they come from as it offers a vital sense of belonging. Because of social fragmentation many people never hear first-hand stories of past generations’ lives, so a written account ensures family stories are never lost.

American author, Susan Cheever says, “I believe that the memoir is the novel of the 21st century; it’s an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap…we’re just getting started figuring out what the rules are.”

Former US President Bill Clinton advocates life stories saying, “I really think that anyone who’s fortunate enough to live to be over 50 years old should take some time, even if it’s just a couple of weekends, to sit down and write the story of your life, even if it’s only twenty pages, and even if it’s only for your children and grandchildren…You’ll be surprised at what you find.”

But for many people this is an arduous task. Where to start? What to include? How to make it a pleasure for others to read?

For an elderly person who may already have everything they need, a few hours spent with a compassionate interviewer and writer who can translate their life story into a compelling book is ideal for marking a special age or anniversary and it’s something family members can all financially contribute to.

“For anyone, whatever their experiences, recalling their life story helps them come to terms with any regrets while acknowledging achievements.”

Rebecca Skinner

Rebecca operates Celebrating Life’s Chapters – Your Ceremony, Your Story, not only creating life story books for people around the world but as a civil celebrant can also conduct a presentation ceremony of the life story book, similar to a This is Your Life. She can tailor the books to suit different budgets and has different book designs available. Rebecca can be found at www.yourlifestorywritten.com or www.celebratinglifeschapters.com and can be contacted on 0401 808 335.

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