≡ Menu

Stories Engage Our Brains

Stories really do engage our brains. They seduce our thoughts to follow them. Narratives are addictive.

There are psychologists and neuroscientists who want to better understand why exactly that is the case.

Wray Herbert wrote this in his blog post “The Narrative in the Neurons“.

One theory is that we all have many “scripts” stored in our neurons. These scripts are derived from past experiences, and words activate these scripts, transforming the printed text into something more like a real-life experience. The opening scene from The Tower Treasure is actually rather spare in its language, yet for the reader it can be a rich encounter. We visualize a narrow road, perhaps one that we have actually known from somewhere. We feel our grip on the motorcycle handlebars, and hear the screech of the tires; we imagine leaping and the difficult pitch of the embankment and the effort of climbing.

I think that is a neat idea. And if you have been involved in marketing or psychology, you know that simple words have a much stronger impact on humans than sophisticated ones. It’s a lot easier to hit an emotional home-run when you use the words of a fifth grader than to do so with the words of a university professor. And that’s not just the case with dumb people – it’s just as much so with smart folks.

At least that’s the idea, which a team of psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis decided to test in the lab. Jeffrey Zacks and his colleagues suspected that several different regions of the brain collaborate in the reading of a tale, each supplying a specialized script based on a particular kind of real-world experience. So, for example, one group of neurons might supply a story’s sense of space and movement (the careening car on a narrow road), while another might contribute the sensation of handling objects (clutching the grips), and still another, the characters’ goals (climbing to safety).

To test this idea, the scientists used a brain scanner to see what regions lit up during the reading of a story.

Now that makes me want to be a scientist. Hooking up people to brain scanning machines to check out what’s going on while they’re reading a story…

They watched the brains of volunteers as they read four short narrative passages. Each clause in each story was coded for the script it should theoretically trigger: movement in space, sense of time passing, characters’ goals, interaction with physical objects, and so forth. The idea was to see if different parts of the brain lit up as the reader’s imagined situation unfolded.

And they did. The details of the brain anatomy aren’t important here, but clearly there are several different neuron clusters involved in story comprehension. For example, a particular area of the brain ramped up when readers were thinking about intent and goal-directed action, but not meaningless motion. Motor neurons flashed when characters were grasping objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activated when characters were navigating their world.

These findings, reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, strongly suggest that readers are far from passive consumers of words and stories. Indeed, it appears that we dynamically activate real-world scripts that help us to comprehend a narrative—and those active scripts in turn enrich the story beyond its mere words and sentences. In this way, reading is much like remembering or imagining a vivid event.

I would be interested in how different the brain reacts to stories it reads, compared to stories it hears (when told by another person), or imagines, or hears and sees (such as in a movie).

It’s possible, the psychologists say, that not just reading but all thinking may be similarly embodied in stored, real-life experiences. In this sense, language may have been an adaptive strategy for efficient and vivid communication of experiences to others. Put another way, storytelling may have evolved as a tool of survival.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “We’re Only Human” blog at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at Newsweek.com.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment