How Your Brain Finds Meaning in Life Experiences

Do stories have the power to help us thrive?

Posted Dec 29, 2017

Markin/DepositPhotos
Source: Markin/DepositPhotos

How do you, your children, and students discover the meaning in everyday life experiences? How do we make sense of words, events, and relationships?

According to a groundbreaking study, researchers at the University of Southern California identified the regions of the brain where humans acquire meaning by interpreting life stories (Dehghani et al., 2017).

Psychologists and narrative researchers have long known that stories are at the core of meaning-making and play an important role in how we understand the world around us. For the first time, neuroscientists have mapped regions of the brain while participants of three ethnic backgrounds were exposed to meaningful narratives.

This research was complex and sophisticated. Researchers sorted through more than twenty million English language blog posts of personal stories and narrowed them to forty topics. Each topic was condensed to a paragraph before being translated into Mandarin Chinese and Farsi. Then the paragraphs were back-translated into English.

The translating of stories into three languages was done to explore patterns of brain activation across languages. 90 participants were equally divided among Americans, Chinese, and Iranians.

As participants read the forty different stories, their brains were scanned using an fMRI. The study found something extraordinarily universal about how people process stories, regardless of their alphabet or language. In fact, researchers discovered that the part of the brain called the default mode network (DMN) is involved in high-level meaning and comprehension.

Prior to this study, the DMN had been identified by researchers as a “resting state,” showing high activity when people were not engaged in externally-focused tasks (Raichle, 2015). It had also been related to “mind-wandering” (Smallwoood & Schooler, 2015) and to self-reflection (Qin & Northoff, 2011).

Interestingly, psychologists have found that “resting states” like meditation, self-reflection, and mind-wandering are tools that help us make meaning of life. In fact, Harvard researchers discovered that daydreaming accounts for forty-seven percent of our activity during waking hours! Mind-wandering and daydreaming have also been linked to creative thinking.

It now appears that the brain’s DMN plays a major role in bringing these resting, creative functions together in a deeply profound and meaningful way.

The same team of USC researchers found that activity in certain DMN nodes increased during the course of a story and was greatest when stories contained strong moral values (Kaplan et al., 2016).

Why should parents and teachers be interested, and even a bit excited, with this neuroscientific research? Because making meaning of life experiences is how children grow and develop into healthy, adaptable, caring adults. The more we discover how to help children find meaning in life, school, friendships, and activities, the more they will learn to thrive.

The Power of Storytelling

A distinguishing characteristic of storytelling is that it requires us to integrate and find meaning to information over time. To grasp the meaning of a story, we must find connections—connections between words, events, and relationships.

The USC study showed that story transcends language and culture. This knowledge has vast implications for parenting, teaching, nation-building, and peace-making. It demonstrates that stories have the power to impact the development of attributes like integrity, self-awareness, and empathy. It shows that human brains respond to stories in much the same way—connecting at high-levels of meaning.

This latest research in neuroscience reinforces the importance of sharing stories with children and teens, and using those stories to teach character strengths and ways to discover self-identity through meaning-making.

Adults help children find meaning and purpose when they discuss movies, books, and stories from their own lives. Through deep questioning, a good movie can help shape a child’s identity. Stories help children and teens see the world in new and different ways, and move them toward positive action. Storytelling is also a conduit for inter-generational learning. Conversations between elders and teens that involve sharing life stories have the potential to generate deep meaning.

Stories help all of us feel part of a world much bigger than ourselves. When people can relate at high-levels of meaning, they can bridge differences, shed biases, and heal wounded relationships.

References

Dehghani, M., Boghrati, R., Man, K., Hoover, J., Gimbel, S., Vaswani, A., … Kaplan, J. (2017, March 2). Decoding the Neural Representation of Story Meanings across Languages. Retrieved from https://psyarxiv.com/qrpp3

Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., Dehghani, M., Immordino-Yang, M. H., Sagae, K., Wong, J. D., . . . Damasio, A. (2016). Processing narratives concerning protected values: A cross-cultural investigation of neural correlates. Cerebral Cortex, bhv325.

Price-Mitchell, M. (2017, December 29). Daydreaming: mindless or meaningful? [Blog post]. Retreived from https://www.rootsofaction.com/daydreaming-mindless-or-meaningful/

Qin, P., & Northoff, G. (2011). How is our self related to midline regions and the default-mode network? Neuroimage, 57 (3), 1221–1233.

Raichle, M. E. (2015). The brain’s default mode network. Annual review of neuroscience, 38 , 433–447.

Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2015). The science of mind wandering: empirically navigating the stream of consciousness. Annual review of psychology, 66, 487–518.