Episode 51 – Lewis Mehl-Madrona M.D. Ph.D

Lewis E. Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD, (born January 26, 1954, Berea, Kentucky) is the author of the Coyote trilogy. His work discusses healing practices from Lakota, Cherokee and Cree traditions, and how they intersect with conventional medicine (via a social constructionist model). Mehl-Madrona has been writing about the use of imagery and narrative in healing since the 1980s. Mehl-Madrona is certified in psychiatry, geriatrics and family medicine.

His research collaborations include work on various psychological conditions, issues of psychology during birthing, nutritional approaches to autism and diabetes, and the use of healing circles to improve overall health outcomes.

Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and trained in family medicine, psychiatry, and clinical psychology.                            He completed his r

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esidencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.  He has been on the faculties of several medical schools, most recently as associate professor of family medicine at the University of New England. He continues to work with aboriginal communities to develop uniquely aboriginal styles of healing and health care for use in those communities. He is interested in the relation of healing through dialogue in community and psychosis. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, and Coyote Wisdom, a trilogy of books on what Native culture has to offer the modern world.  He has also written Narrative Medicine, Healing the Mind through the Power of Story: the Promise of Narrative

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Psychiatry, and, his most recent book with Barbara Mainguy, Remapping Your Mind: the Neuroscience of Self-Transformation through Story.

Lewis currently teaches with the family medicine residency at Eastern Maine Medical Center (EMMC) in Bangor, where he does inpatient medicine, outpatient precepting, and obstetrics.  He works in consultation-liaison psychiatry at EMMC and also
at Acadia Hospital.  He  serves on the Board of Directors of the Coyote Institute for Studies of Change and Transformation.

Lewis has been studying traditional healing and healers since his early days and has written about their work and the process of healing.  His primary focus has been upon Cherokee and Lakota traditions, though he has also explored other Plains Cultures and those of Northeastern North America.  His goal is to bring the wisdom of indigenous peoples about healing back into mainstream medicine and to transform medicine and psychology through this wisdom coupled with more European derived narrative traditions.  He has written scientific papers in these areas and continues to do research.  He writes a weekly (almost) blog on health and mental health for www.futurehealth.org.  His current interests center around psychosis and its treatment within community and with non-pharmacological means, narrative approaches to chronic pain and its use in primary care, and further developing healing paradigms within a narrative/indigenous framework.

Barbara Mainguy, M.A., is a psychotherapist and education director for the Coyote Institute for Studies of Change and Transformation. She lives in Orono, Maine.

How Do We Understand Stories?

When we hear or read a story, our minds actively start recognizing words, parsing sentences, accessing our memory for all possible meanings of each word (semantic memory), understanding the meaning of the word (semantic comprehension), generating all possible associations we might have to what we are hearing/reading, making inferences regarding character intentions, interpreting the intentions of the teller, deciding on the overall meaning, eliminating extraneous information, and more.

The brain processes required for understanding story have been separated into three broad categories: (1) memory encoding and retrieval, (2) integration, and (3) elaboration or simulation. Memory is required to achieve an overall sense of coherence for a story, at least in part by allowing us to track the relations between near and distant clauses within that story. The same neurons associated with hearing a story continue to be active for a time after the story ends, supporting the idea that we hold the story in working memory. The frontal lobe is the brain region that best performs this function (Rolls 2000). Neuroimaging studies coupled with studies of brain-damaged people help us better localize the parts of the brain necessary for a given function (Cabeza & Nyberg 2000).

Retrieving personal memories that occur as associations to a story is important. These memories tend to be more actively self-oriented when elicited by what we consider to be fiction as compared to what we consider to be news (Larsen & Seilman 1988).

Why Do We Need to Understand Stories?

Human experience is embedded in stories, which we understand and produce through our brains (Mar 2008). We are insatiable consumers of stories. We find the personal stories of others absolutely compelling, whether as anecdotes or gossip, and spend considerable time engaged with novels, plays, films, and television shows. Our affinity for story emerges at a very young age, when we develop deep and long-lasting emotional attachments to the storybooks and movies that surround us. These fictional stories are not frivolous; stories have the power to change our beliefs about the world, whether or not they “really” happened. They do “really happen” in the telling. Readers’ attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a narrative after exposure to fiction (Prentice, Gerrig & Bailis 1997; Strange & Leung 1999; Wheeler, Green & Brock 1999).

British neuroscientist Mark Turner situates the roots of human mental functioning in story. The way we think is based upon story devices, including metaphor and parable. “We organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative.” We even create stories to explain the unusual experiences we have in states of psychosis, which then become delusions. We need to understand story, because story is what we use to explain our world. Story is what we use to create identity. Story lies behind our beliefs about the world.

There is no single way to understand a story. When we hear a story we look for the many possible beliefs inherent in that story. We find these beliefs by sorting through the beliefs we already have. We are not as concerned with what we are hearing as we are with finding what we already know that is relevant. Picture it this way: We have a list of beliefs, indexed by type of experience and meaning. When a new story appears, we attempt to find a belief that relates to it. When we do, we find a story attached to that belief and compare the story in memory to the one being processed. Our understanding of the new story is a function of the old story. Once we find a belief and connected story, we need do no further processing; the search for other beliefs is co-opted. We rarely look to understand a story in more than one way. The mind does not easily pursue multiple paths.

Telling Stories Back Implies Understanding

We tell stories for many reasons, one of which is to indicate to our listener that we have understood what we have heard. Our only choice for assessing how well we have been understood as storytellers may be to compare the story that occurs in response to the story we told.

We are always looking for stories to tell back to show that we have understood. When we find them, processing stops, and we wait to tell our story. We only incorporate what we have heard into memory when we feel that our own stories are inadequate in some way, for example, if our story is missing a piece. Such pieces can be supplied by other people’s stories. We may find a story inadequate when we use it to exemplify a belief that we are not quite sure we hold. We are willing to consider new stories as evidence for or against those beliefs and, therefore, to record and to remember better the stories of others.

The Paradox of Understanding

The odd paradox to all this is that we are less likely to learn directly from someone else’s story than we are to modify our own memories to incorporate aspects of those stories we are hearing. When we hear a story, we are reminded of our own similar stories. The story we heard is recalled in terms of the story of which we were reminded. Thus, we rarely recall the stories of others easily. Generally, other people’s stories don’t have the richness of detail and emotional impact that allows them to be stored in multiple ways in our memories. They do, however, provide enough details and emotions to allow them to be more easily stored than if the teller had simply told us his belief.

Editorial Reviews


“In this superb contribution to the field of self-transformation through story, Dr. Mehl-Madrona and Barbara Mainguy present important scientific research in approachable language as they demonstrate the intrinsic therapeutic value of story at all levels of our being. The authors have all the qualities of true ‘medicine’ people–they heal, they bless, they give thanks, they teach, they respect those who approach them for help–and so join the ancient lineage of storytellers who ensure the continuity of life giving, universal healing wisdom.” (Jack Angelo, author of Self-Healing with Breathwork: Using the Power of Breath to Increase Energy an)

“Our life is a storied life. Where we may have been thrown into an unhappy or even hostile story, we have ways to remap and re-story our lives. I have read each of Dr. Mehl-Madrona’s books, shared them with clients and students, and witnessed how his words help transform the inner and outer landscapes of our lives. He shows us how we can experience transformation and transcendence by being able to story our life differently. Remapping Your Mind satisfies in every way.” (Julie Tallard Johnson, author of The Zero Point Agreement: How to Be Who You Already Are)


Find Lewis here: http://www.mehl-madrona.com/

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