Let’s try a little experiment. What are you thinking about right now?
You’ve likely got a combination of images and words floating around in your head that you are obliged to make sense of when I ask you what you’re thinking about. Because you’re reading this online, you might answer by typing. If we were chatting in person, you might answer by speaking and gesturing. But one thing is the same no matter how you choose to communicate: The very first thing you do is to form a cohesive narrative that frames your thoughts before you communicate them so you’ll be understood. In essence, each time you communicate you’re telling a mini story.
We understand the world in stories. In order to process a scene that’s unfolding in front of us, we not only need to see the various components of the scene but we need to connect them together in a meaningful way (meaning is known as “semantics” to psychologists). For example, seeing a scratched car, an angry face and a cringing cyclist we may conclude that the car belongs to the angry face and the cyclist has just scratched it with his bike. Without our ability to form stories like this that knit together our world semantically, we wouldn’t be able to navigate through our complex environments at all.
The general consensus in the scientific community is that language is one of the most complex achievements of the human mind, one that far surpasses the communication capabilities of other living things. But only recently have state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques shown just how complex our inner mental maps are when it comes to processing stories.
In a recent article published in Nature, researchers used a neuroimaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map brain activity while people listened to hours of narrative storytelling. They found that the semantic system, which deals with the meaning of language, is organized into intricate patterns that reach all corners of the brain, and that these patterns seem to be consistent across individuals.
“We already knew that a lot of these brain regions did something with language and semantics,” says lead researcher Alexander Huth, “but nobody knew what, exactly, these regions were selective for. We found that these regions are actually highly selective for different ‘semantic domains’ (which you can think of really as ‘topics’—what, generally, someone is talking about at any point in time). But it’s not like each region is selective for one domain. Actually, each region is broken up into lots of smaller brain areas that are selective for different domains. This is especially true (and exciting!) in [the] prefrontal cortex, where we know very little about how the brain is organized.”
The study found that when it comes to rich narrative stories, semantic processing seems to happen in both hemispheres, not just the left hemisphere as previously thought from studies that have examined how we process individual words or phrases. This could be because longer-form narratives involve more in-depth abstract thinking, a facility commonly understood to be a strength of the right hemisphere of the brain. This suggests there is an increased processing advantage to using long-form narrative content over short-form content to engage an audience.
The consistency of the patterns recorded in the study across individuals also suggests that the way we process meaning in narrative stories could be universal (although more research needs to be done with more demographically diverse participants). But early evidence that people seem to process stories in a similar way hints at their strength as a universal communication tool, not just one suited to so-called “narrative-minded” types. Huth adds that “[the] interestingness of a story corresponds to reliability of the brain responses to that story. When you get immersed, your brain starts ticking along a very well-defined path. But when a story is bad (or hard to understand), some parts of the brain do different things each time you hear it.”
One of the most fascinating results of the study is the creation of a semantic “atlas” of the mind, where different areas correspond to different types of meaning. The study identified 12 main semantic areas that light up in the brain: mental, emotional, social, communal, professional, violent, temporal, abstract, locational, numeric, tactile, and visual. Areas of the brain that strongly correspond to social, numeric, tactile and visual concepts are located within a system known to be involved in introspection and conscious thought. The finding that stories can elicit activity in our brains in the same regions involved in our own conscious thought indicates how deeply narratives can reach us. It could be the case that social, numeric, tactile and visual concepts woven into a narrative can help us process the information as if we were imagining it ourselves. Huth suggests that “maybe the way we think actually builds on how we understand narratives in the world around us.”
These findings have important implications for digital storytelling, and they indicate a future where we’ll have a much greater understanding of how we process narratives. Here are the most important takeaways from the current research.
1. Long-form content can engage audiences more robustly by activating complex networks in both hemispheres of the brain that span vast, intricate areas.
2. Narrative stories need to be crafted well so they are immersive—this is what leads to a reliable brain response—and well-crafted stories are effective no matter who you’re trying to communicate with because they activate similar patterns of meaning for different individuals.
3. Using details that appeal to the senses (particularly visual and tactile), use numbers, and tap into our understanding of social concepts may help us process stories more deeply, in the same way we form conscious thought. The way we think may be shaped by how we understand narratives in the world around us.
The fascinating insights from this unprecedented neuroimaging research reveal the extent to which stories reach us deeply and comprehensively. Future studies will be able to take an even finer-grained look at how our brains respond to these narratives in different contexts and across cultures. The researchers even hypothesize that in future, the very contents of thought could be decoded using the models they’ve developed.
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