How do fairy tales help children's brain development? This is why reading aloud is important.
As scientists well know, our brains naturally produce hormones, which can have effects comparable to drugs. One of these is oxytocin, otherwise known as the ‘love hormone’. A dose of oxytocin gives us a feeling of happiness, well-being, trust, and self-confidence. It removes stress and depression and increases our resistance to pain. We feel it when we nurture a child, receive praise, or hug another person; it releases during all expressions of love and trust, when looking into the eyes of a loved one, holding their hands, or caressing their skin.
Another well-known hormone is cortisol. The brain secretes it in critical situations when the body is exposed to psychological or emotional stress. In a healthy amount, it helps to keep us alert, mobilise energy, and maintain attention. On the other hand, a high level of cortisol causes a decrease in immunity, tissue destruction, diabetes, and other health problems.
Listening to stories stimulates different areas of the brain that work together to connect words, emotions, and sensory images. Fairytales evoke different emotions in a child: anger, sadness, joy, enthusiasm, fear. At the same time, the intensity of a child's emotional reaction is linked to the relationship with the person telling the story. That’s why the act of reading helps children form a strong bond with the person reading to them.
And why do we mention oxytocin and cortisol? Because science has proven that reading fairytales and listening to stories causes the release of oxytocin and reduces the release of cortisol in the brains of both children and adults. So what actually happens when reading fairytales? Reading fairytales affects the subjective emotions and behaviour not only of the child, but also of the parent who reads. The receptors in our brains react to words and to the manner of speaking, intonation, tension, melody, and timbre of the voices we hear.
There is also a link between text and the imagination: it creates a so-called ‘emotional immersion’ that deeply engages a child in the world of the story. When a child becomes immersed in a story, they empathise with the characters, their situation, their emotional state. This is when the brain starts producing oxytocin. The release of oxytocin signals to the brain that everything is okay – the child is safe and can rely on the reader. Its effects are manifested precisely when the child sees a reflection of their own experiences, their own desires and dreams in the story. By diving into the story, the child increases their empathy. Scientists have shown a direct link between oxytocin and empathy, the processing of one's own and others' emotions, which can lead to reducing fear and anxiety.
If you want to increase your child’s oxytocin even more, when you start to read, begin with a personal expectation, dream, or belief that the world can be a better place. Think about how to live more joyfully, how to create the world without fear, trouble, or disappointment. This expression of trust starts the flow of oxytocin in our brains, which creates a safe space between a child and a parent.
Zak, P. J. 2014. Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Harward Business Review, October 28, 2014.