How the brain listens to literature

Fig 1.  Results of the localizer scans.
Results of the localizer scans: Whole-brain analysis results for the
action localizer scan in yellow and for the mentalizing localizer in blue.

How do people understand fiction?  What happens in their brains when either reading or listening to a piece of fiction?  And why do some people prefer character based works, and others action adventure?  From this study, it seems there may be a genetic basis for these choices rather than the preference being learned.  It probably explains why some writers prefer creating character based fiction and others action based.  As we're discovering, "we're born this way," to quote Lady Gaga, and free will has little to do with it.  

This research shows that some people primarily get involved in the action, visualizing the story line as it progresses as shown by the portions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain as shown above.  For others, the reading or listening experience activates different portions of the right and left hemispheres, sections more involved with empathizing with the characters.

This implies an organic predisposition for some people to prefer literature or film that is action driven, while others are predisposed to relate to character.

Here is the report with a link to the original study in the attribution.
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How the brain listens to literature

When we listen to stories, we immerse ourselves into the situations described and empathize with the feelings of the characters. Only recently has it become possible to find out how exactly this process works in the brain. Scientists have now succeeded using an fMRI scanner to measure how people listen to a literary story.

Everybody immerses themselves in stories in their own way. However, due to technological limitations, how we comprehend literature has only previously been studied at a group level without looking at individual differences. Willems and Nijhof show in this study that people focus on different aspects of the story when listening to literature.

Narratives play an important role in human life, and it is more and more acknowledged that fiction is a powerful player in human development as well as in adulthood. Despite its importance, it is largely unknown what the brain networks are that support our unique ability to move into a fiction world. While it is uncontroversial that people are moved into fiction worlds, it is unclear how readers do this.

One way in which participants engage with stories, is via simulation of the story’s content. Recent philosophical and neuroscientific evidence shows that it is important to distinguish at least two neurocognitively distinct components of simulation when considering the understanding of narratives.

  • First, sensori-motor simulation is evidenced by activation of motor and visual cortices when people comprehend language related to actions and scenery. 
  • The second component relates to our ability to understand thoughts, intentions and beliefs of others, sometimes called mentalizing. The distinction between these two components important for fiction understanding is theoretically motivated, and supported by neural findings.

In this study participants listened to excerpts (4 to 8 minutes long) from literary novels, while neural activity was measured across the whole brain by means of fMRI. We chose to use listening rather than word-by-word reading, because relatively long fragments are used and therefore listening is expected to be the most convenient option for participants in the scanner. Supposedly, this would not result in crucial differences in terms of the mental simulation they employ.

Audiobooks in the fMRI scanner
Participants listened to chapters of different audiobooks, for example Island Guests by Vonne van der Meer and Thaw by Rascha Peper. Roel Willems of the Donders Institute at Radboud University says, 'We found that there were strong individual preferences; some participants were particularly focused on understanding the intentions and feelings of the main character, while other participants were much more focused on visualizing the actions of the characters.'

Previous studies did find differences in brain activity between listening and reading (with more individual differences in activity for reading), but also several core regions shared between modalities. More importantly for the purposes of the present study, it has been shown that regions involved in mentalizing and action understanding are activated independent of presentation.

Understanding Literature

by Robin Mayhead

Click to order from
Powell's Books
People differ greatly in how they engage in fiction, but the neurocognitive mechanisms behind narrative engagement remain unclear. Here we use neuroimaging to investigate individual differences during the comprehension of literary fiction stories.

Empathizing with literature
'Most people can both empathize with feelings as well as imagine the visual surroundings and the actions of the characters,' according to Willems, 'but our fMRI results show that each subject has a preference for one over the other.' This neuroscientific study is one of the first to prove individual differences when it comes to empathizing with literature.

Words, sentences, stories
This study is also unique because Willems studies 'real' language, i.e. language used in everyday life. 'Language in the brain is often studied by providing subjects with individual words and sentences. But, of course, language is much more than that! We let our participants listen to longer stories. This makes our publication a good example of brain research studying language that is very similar to the language people actually use.'

Related stories:
Story Source:  Materials provided by Radboud University. Annabel D. Nijhof, Roel M. Willems. Simulating Fiction: Individual Differences in Literature Comprehension Revealed with fMRI. PLOS ONE, 2015


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