The Brain on Stories

The brain patterns of a listener can align with the brain patterns of the storyteller.

The brain patterns of a listener can align with the brain patterns of the storyteller.

YEAR:  1748
PROBLEM:  When one hand is busy, how to use other hand to consume roast beef without soiling that hand with grease and sauces.
• Put the beef between two pieces of toast.
• Hold that amalgam with one hand, only touching the toast.
• Appease hunger while other hand remains productive.

That’s one way to learn about the origin of what is perhaps the most ubiquitous food form on the planet. That history would easily fit on a PowerPoint slide for presentation at a business meeting.

Here’s an alternative way to transmit that information. In 1748 there was a British politician, John Montagu, who loved to play cards in his free time. During an attack of hunger or some 18th century urge to multi-task, Montagu wished to enjoy his roast beef as he was playing cards, but so as not to soil the cards. He came up with the simple yet oh so clever idea of surrounding a slice of beef with toast. The name by which this food form came to be known was borrowed from Montagu’s titled name, the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

Same bit of history, presented two different ways. Ten years from now which presentation is more likely to result in that history being remembered?

Telling stories has always been one of our species’ fundamental forms of communication, going all the way back to cave dwellings and the fires we tended near their entrances. We are hard-wired for narrative. Interpreting reality as a chain of cause and effect is how we impose order on the chaos of sensory perception and social relationships. In the mid-20th century the fields of advertising and political campaigns came to appreciate the power of storytelling and to consciously (and cynically) exploit it, all in the service of persuading us to buy stuff or vote for a certain candidate.

In more recent decades storytelling has become a serious subject of academic research. One term for this field is “cognitive neuroscience.” Scientists have learned that our brain becomes more active when we hear stories. A PowerPoint presentation with bullet points activates just a few regions in the brain, namely Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. But when we hear a story, activity increases dramatically. If the story involves food, our sensory cortex engages. If the story is about motion, our motor cortex lights up.

These findings were made using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which are more commonly used by clinicians to produce detailed images of organs and tissue. Using the process known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the machine can show the blood flow to various areas in the brain – indicating increased neural activity there – as study participants perform specific tasks.

Most researchers are using this process to study cognitive processing over short intervals, such as exposing subjects to visual or auditory stimuli for 1,000 milliseconds or less. However Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson has designed experiments that use much longer stimuli, e.g. a Charlie Chaplin comedy or Alfred Hitchcock thriller, that are as long as 90 minutes for some experiments. He has thus been able to study how the brain accumulates and integrates information over long periods of time. (I found a three-minute excerpt of a lecture by Hasson on how the brain responds to Hitchcock’s Bang! You’re Dead, a 1961 television episode.)

Hasson has discovered that human brains show similar activity when we hear the same story. In one study, Hasson had five people in fMRI machines listen to the same personal story. Their brains showed differing activities before the recorded story began, but then during the story their brain activity became synced, what Hasson calls “aligned.”

Hasson has also done a variation of this experiment where he monitored the brain activity of the person telling a story live as well as of those listening and found that not only did all listeners show similar brain activity during the story, the brain activity was very similar in the speaker and the listeners.

In another experiment Hasson had subjects watch a scene of the BBC television show Sherlock and then recount what happened to another person who had never seen it. The person hearing the story second-hand showed brain activity similar to that of the original viewer, both while he viewed the episode and when he recounted it later.

In theatre there is a mysterious, communal audience state that writers, directors and actors strive for. (I suspect preachers strive for the same effect on Sunday morning.) It doesn’t happen all that often, probably because theatre is rarely top-notch drama. (Believe me, writing a script of surpassing quality is exceedingly hard). Veteran theatre professionals develop a sixth sense about this communal state. It involves audience members leaning forward in their seats, held in rapt attention and seemingly even breathing in unison. When theatre folks sense this happening, they know the play is working on every level and giving the audience an emotionally satisfying experience.

I wonder whether Hasson’s cutting-edge research in cognitive neuroscience might point the way to an explanation. Because human brains are similarly wired for narrative, when we’re experiencing the same narrative our brains may be responding with remarkable similarity, even when we’re in a group numbering several hundred or even a thousand other people.

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