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Our Search for Meaning Produces Universal Neural Signatures

Regardless of language, the same brain areas light up when interpreting a story.

Morteza Dehghani, et al.
English, Farsi and Mandarin readers use the same parts of the brain to decode the deeper meaning of what they're reading.
Source: Morteza Dehghani, et al.

In an era dominated by heartbreaking headlines and divisive political rhetoric, a pioneering state-of-the-art brain imaging study reminds us of our human commonality and the universality of our search for meaning in the stories we read.

The latest fMRI study by neuroscientists at the University of Southern California (USC), illuminates that reading narrative stories in either English, Farsi, or Mandarin Chinese activates the exact same neural networks regardless of someone's native language, nationality, or cultural origins. This paper, “Decoding the Neural Representation of Story Meanings Across Languages," was published online, September 20, in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

For this study, the USC research team—which included legendary neuroscientist Antonio Damasio—identified that when someone finds personal meaning in a narrative story, he or she displays almost identical patterns of brain activation regardless of his or her national origin or language.

Notably, the researchers found that reading a personal narrative story resulted in unique patterns of neural activity within the so-called “default mode network” (DMN). More specifically, reading a narrative story in any of the three languages tested in the fMRI engaged interconnected brain patterns that included the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobe, lateral temporal cortex, and hippocampal formation.

In recent years, the role that the DMN actually plays in human cognition has become a topic of heated debate. That said, the USC researchers speculate that the default mode network could be working behind the scenes to find meaning in the narratives we read. They also hypothesize that the DMN might serve some type of autobiographical memory function that influences how we process stories as they relate to the past, present, and future of our personal life story and our relationships with others.

Although more research is needed, the Brain and Creativity Institute researchers at USC are optimistic that their findings on the universal power of narrative storytelling to engage similar neural networks regardless of national origin or language barriers opens up exciting possibilities of using narrative stories to increase self-awareness and empathy towards one another.

In a statement, the study’s lead author, Morteza Dehghani, said: "Even given these fundamental differences in language, which can be read in a different direction or contain a completely different alphabet altogether, there is something universal about what occurs in the brain at the point when we are processing narratives.”

Reading Fictional Stories Can Make Our Brains More Empathic

This latest study from USC on the universality of reading narratives echoes the findings of a 2014 paper from Carnegie Mellon, "Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses," published in the journal PLOS ONE. For this study, the Carnegie Mellon researchers used fMRI to identify which parts of the brain are engaged in processing the relationships between fictional characters, while determining the usage and meaning of individual words and sentences in fantasy literature.

 ESB Professional/Shutterstock
Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

The neuroscientists mapped the brain in fMRI as study participants read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and were able to identify distinctive ways that fictional narratives engage the same brain networks as a real-life experience. When someone was engaged in reading a fictional story, his or her brain appeared to be living vicariously through diverse characters on a neurobiological level. This process appeared to increase readers' ability to empathize with people from outside groups.

In another study, cognitive neuroscientists in France found that when someone read a sentence such as “Pablo kicked the ball” or “John grasped the object” that specific regions of the motor cortex associated with either kicking or grasping an object lit up in the fMRI respectively.

Along this same line, an October 2013 study, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind" was published in the journal Science. Theory of Mind (ToM) is basically the human capacity to comprehend that other people have beliefs and desires that are different from your own and to imagine what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes. The researchers concluded that reading narrative literary fiction was more effective at improving ToM than reading nonfiction.

In future studies, the USC researchers and other neuroscientists will continue to fine-tune how various factors—such as the integrity of white matter functional connectivity and default mode network activation—enhance our individual self-awareness and empathy towards one another while reading narrative stories.


Dehghani, Morteza, Reihane Boghrati, Kingson Man, Joe Hoover, Sarah I. Gimbel, Ashish Vaswani, Jason D. Zevin, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Andrew S. Gordon, Antonio Damasio, Jonas T. Kaplan. "Decoding the Neural Representation of Story Meanings Across Languages." Human Brain Mapping (September 20, 2017) DOI: 10.1002/hbm.23814

Wehbe, Leila, Brian Murphy, Partha Talukdar, Alona Fyshe, Aaditya Ramdas, and Tom Mitchell. "Simultaneously uncovering the patterns of brain regions involved in different story reading subprocesses." PloS One 9, no. 11 (2014): e112575. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0112575

Kidd, David Comer, and Emanuele Castano. "Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind." Science 342, no. 6156 (2013): 377-380. DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918

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