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Mind & Brain

Universal Brain Activation Discovered When Reading Stories

New research at USC shows universal brain activity in the comprehension of stories for the first time. 
Circa 1955: Two young children sitting on the statue of story writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805 - 1875) in Central Park, New York, reading the book on his lap. (Photo by Jacobsen /Three Lions/Getty Images)

Joseph Campbell knew a few things about storytelling. His lifelong survey of the world’s mythologies led him to conclude certain themes were prevalent in disparate cultures spread across the planet. In the classic, The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers asks Campbell what we owe ancient myths. Campbell replied that they were designed to synchronize mind and body.

The mind can ramble off in strange ways and want things that the body does not want. The myths and rites were means of putting the mind in accord with the body and the way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.

It’s been over three decades since that interview. Today we know the distance between mind and body are not as great as we’d once imagined, that the mind is just a term we use to represent some of the functions of the brain and its relationship with the environment, with the body being a necessary component of this equation. But when it comes to narrative being a universal unifying force, Campbell seems to have been on point.

A new study out of USC, which includes the input of corresponding author Antonio Damasio, found that regardless of language humans exhibit the same brain activity when finding meaning in stories. Testing subjects in English, Farsi, and Mandarin Chinese, the research, published in Human Brain Mapping, is believed to be the first time universal activity has been shown in literary comprehension.

Research has shown that reading aids in the development of empathy and intelligence. The USC researchers believe this study proves that narrative fosters self-awareness and empathy for others. Sorting through over 20 million blog posts, they settled on forty personal tales, which were then translated into the three languages mentioned above.

Study participants were asked questions about the stories as they were reading, while researchers scanned their brains. In effect they were mind reading:

Using state-of-the-art machine learning and text-analysis techniques, and an analysis involving over 44 billion classifications, the researchers were able to “reverse engineer” the data from these brain scans to determine the story the reader was processing in each of the three languages.

The stories showed universal activation of areas of the “default mode network” of the brain. The regions implicated include the medial prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in decision making and memory recall; the posterior cingulate cortex, also active in episodic memory recall; the inferior parietal lobe, which plays an important role in understanding emotions and interpreting sensory data; the lateral temporal cortex, active in emotional association and visual memory; and hippocampal formation, where long term memories are processed. 

These regions themselves tell a story of sorts. We become invested in fictional characters because we relate to them; we use their stories to frame and understand our own. Reading stories, as shown in this study, activates brain regions dealing with emotional processing and memory. We feel the characters’ struggles and victories, then remember them as part of ourselves. This is why stories mean so much to us, and why reading makes us more understanding people. 

Default mode is otherwise known as “daydreaming,” one of our brain’s two main states, with “central executive,” or complete focus, being the other. As neuroscientist Dan Levitin discusses in The Organized Mind, default mode is where many problems are solved and creativity is enhanced when allowing your mind to drift:

Creative solutions often arise from allowing a sequence of altercations between dedicated focus and daydreaming.

The USC research suggests that reading stories is not dissimilar from daydreaming, in that your mind is free to wander and connect themes that otherwise might not be connected if you were actively trying to accomplish this feat. It’s why we get “lost in a book” or “swept away by a story,” only that, in this case, being lost is a means of finding valuable information. The story is not a detour, just an indirect and often pleasurable route to where you want to get to. 

For USC assistant professor Jonas Kaplan, another corresponding author of this study, this research further promotes the idea that narrative is how we construct our world:

One of the biggest mysteries of neuroscience is how we create meaning out of the world. Stories are deep-rooted in the core of our nature and help us create this meaning.

Many researchers point out that we don’t so much react to the world as constantly create meaning in the moment based on past experiences. The story is our framework for comprehending what’s going on around and inside of us. It shouldn’t be surprising that, regardless of culture or language, everyone shares a construction process.

Campbell knew that stories brought people together. Beneath the innumerable gods and demons invented in mythological texts over the span of millennia, the process of narrative is the same despite the divergent tales being told. The better we understand the process, the closer we get to recognizing the characters are not the point.

The essence is the story itself. Understanding this allows us to share our mythologies without getting caught up in which are true, as the answer is none and all of them. What we construct is up to us. It just depends on whether we want to write a narrative of togetherness or one of discord into our future.

Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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