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Stories in Our Brain

Here are common brain responses to literary narratives.

Key points

  • How authors wield words creates their distinct style of writing and conveys the emotional intensity of a narrative.
  • Stylistic or literary language engages our brains’ language systems more intensely than other segments of a story.
  • Emotional segments elicit less activation in attention areas, suggesting a neural mechanism by which readers experience immersion in fiction.

This post was co-authored by Franziska Hartung, Ph.D.

Getting lost while driving is a mundane irritation; getting lost in a novel is a particular pleasure. What does it mean to get lost in a story? Do we still notice the language used by the writer? How do we experience emotions as we follow protagonists through their adventures?

Source: Photo by Jennifer Louise Murphy, used with permission
Source: Photo by Jennifer Louise Murphy, used with permission

Not all words in a narrative are created equally. This statement is true in a fundamental way. Words can be grammatically distinct, such as being nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions. They can also vary in frequency, meaning how often they occur in natural language. For example, dog is a much more frequent word in English than platypus. Most neurolinguists direct their experimental scalpels at dissecting the nature and effects of word-level properties like grammatical class and lexical frequency to illuminate how we speak or understand language. Those differences in words are not our concern here.

Literary form and emotional content

For narratives, we are interested in higher-order, more abstract qualities of words and phrases: the distinction between the literary form of the writing and language that conveys emotional content. Some phrases are attention-seekers, while others do their work quietly in the background. We often notice literary forms (e.g., unusual turns of phrase, metaphors, analogies, and other stylistic devices) when we have an opinion on whether the writing is good or bad. In these cases, the text itself comes to the fore.

By contrast, other words and phrases elicit emotions that transport readers into the imaginary world of the story. Readers might experience joy as they identify with a victorious protagonist or suspense when a carefree character strolling in the woods does not anticipate, as we do, looming danger. In such immersive segments, the text itself typically disappears into the background.

As fundamental as they are to the appreciation of literature, we have little understanding of how readers’ experiences of literary form and emotional engagement are implemented in the brain. Is the aesthetic experience of savoring a well-turned phrase dissociable from the enjoyment we experience when emotionally immersed in a story? When we escape in a novel, do our brains distinguish literary form from emotional content the way a literary critique might?

Neural responses to narrative

In a recent study (Hartung et al., 2021), we first examined whether people agree on which parts of a story are regarded as literary and which parts evoke strong emotions. We then tested the idea that the brain responds differently to the parts of the story that people think are literary and parts that engage them emotionally. Our results were striking.

Using two Dutch short stories, readers overwhelmingly agreed on which segments were particularly literary, indicating that the experience of writing style, even if subjective, is shared by people. Similarly, there was considerable agreement on the segments of stories that readers found emotionally engaging. In the particular stories that we chose, the suspense was a major emotion and fluctuated in intensity as the stories unfolded.

What happened in the brains of our readers? First, literary language engaged our language system more than other segments of the story. These classic language systems included the left inferior frontal and superior parietal lobules and left supramarginal and angular gyri. This pattern may reflect the added depth of processing required to understand literary language or the fact that we pay more attention to the writing itself than its content. These effects were particularly strong in people who read literature more frequently than others.

Emotionally intense segments were associated with less activation of a large network that is associated with top-down attention and executive control. These structures included parts of dorsolateral prefrontal cortices bilaterally and the right inferior parietal and hippocampal cortices. These areas are typically active when we intentionally seek information and pay attention to specific objects in the world. That this externally oriented attentional network is dampened during emotionally intense parts of a story suggests that readers drop their habitual information-seeking state when immersed in a story. This dampened activation pattern was particularly robust in people who later rated the story as interesting.

The brain structures that were deactivated during emotionally intense story segments overlap with the network engaged when we make inferences about other people or a fictional character’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs, or mental states. While we cannot be sure of the correct interpretation of our finding, this pattern may indicate that emotional content engenders an immersion in our own subjective experience rather than an explicit reflection on a character’s feelings. This interpretation is supported by the fact that this effect was particularly strong in people who experience higher rewards when engaging in emotional situations.

This study brings our aesthetic experience of narratives into relief at a neural level. Skillful writing entails a conscious manipulation of words to create style and invite emotional engagement. Readers largely distinguish the attention-capturing literary segments of a narrative from the emotional segments that unfold with more subtlety. Our brains, it turns out, make a similar distinction. Some areas are more strongly engaged by writing that brings the text to the fore, while others are disengaged when emotions take over, and the text recedes into the background.

References

Hartung, F., Wang, Y., Mak, M., Willems, R., & Chatterjee, A. (2021). Aesthetic appraisals of literary style and emotional intensity in narrative engagement are neurally dissociable. Communications Biology, 4(1), 1401. doi:10.1038/s42003-021-02926-0

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