Why children need fairy tales. Neurobiological arguments for telling fairy tales

Gerald Hüther

Learning works best in children (as it does in adults) if it gets a bit “under our skin”, that is, if the emotional centres in the brain are activated and more of the messengers are formed and released which promote the establishment of connections between the nerve cells. One possibility of achieving such an open state, so optimal for learning, is play in which the children discover themselves and the world. Another, in which the children learn something about the world and life, is the story lesson. That works best if the fairy tale is read or told by someone with whom the child has a close and trusting relationship. In order to create the right “rush” of excitement (that is, the emotional centres in the brain fire but do not immediately overshoot and “scream alarm” because the child has been put in a state of fear and terror), the atmosphere is important. We can light a candle and turn the story lesson into a proper ritual. That helps the children to come to rest and concentrate. That is the only way in which they can build up and stabilise complex patterns of stimulation in their brain. It matters how a fairy tale is told or read. The child has to notice that the teller himself or herself is also enthused and affected, dismayed or shocked. The emotional sparks can only be transmitted if we keep looking at the child and the relevant feeling is brought to expression. 

This close contact with the child and the feedback that it is still emotionally “engaged” can be better achieved when telling a fairy tale rather than reading it. Recorders or videos are completely unsuitable in this respect because such devices simply cannot adjust to the reactions or exclamations of the child. They leave the children alone with their feelings. The magic potion is therefore not the fairy tale as such but the emotional relationship with the content and the people in the fairy tale in which the child allows itself to be involved with the empathetic help of the story teller or reader as he or she listens.

But that is not all because, after all, something also happens in the brain of the person who tells or reads the fairy tale to the children. Old memories awaken, not just memories of the precise content of the story but above all memories of what it was like when we were told the fairy tale as children. Then the atmosphere from that time comes to life, the pleasant feeling, the experience of the intense encounter with a person dear to us. All these things resurface clearly from the wealth of experiences of early childhood. Because they generally awaken such early, positively experienced memories, the old fairy tales also give us adults strength in a mysterious way. The inner unrest, the worries and anxieties disappear. So fairy tales are also balm for the souls of adults.

But even that is not all. Fairy tales not only transport stories but also the associated images – the messages they contain about the adults in a particular family, clan, community and, ultimately, a particular cultural grouping which the children grow into. In this way they create a common platform of familiar and known things, of the knowledge developed by the members of the community and spread within the community. They therefore help to create identity and in this way strengthen community cohesion. In other words, fairy tales ensure the concord of a cultural community.

As brain researchers have been able to show in recent years with the aid of new imaging procedures, the connectivity between the nerve cells in the brain as representing patterns of thinking, feeling and activity are formed to a much greater extent through own experiences than hitherto assumed. The experiences which are crucial for our own and the collective management of life are passed on from one generation to the next. Fairy tales are an instrument for passing down important messages about our own management of life and the development of relationships. They exercise a crucial influence on the interpersonal abilities, creativity and imaginative world of human communities.