While binge watching a new show, I sometimes wonder what’s keeping me watching even when the plot, well, falls apart. Usually, it has to do with the characters; watching them show after show makes it hard to separate from them even when the plot is no longer engaging. A new study about narrative storytelling might help support that: Researchers found that whether communicated via speech, gestures, or drawing, storytelling tunes people’s brains into characters – their thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
Just published online in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, the new study compares different forms of narrative storytelling. “Previous cross-modal studies of narrative have looked mainly at perception alone, for example comparing the acoustic perception of speech with the visual perception of gestures,” says Steven Brown of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. “There have also been narrative-production studies, but they have looked at one modality at a time – speech, gesture, or drawing on their own.”
In comparing narrative production across the three modalities, the researchers had to control for the obvious sensorimotor differences between these modalities to hone in on narrative-related activations. “We were essentially looking for a cross-modal ‘narrative hub’ in the brain,” Brown explains. To do so, the researchers scanned study participants using fMRI while presenting them with short headlines, such as “Surgeon finds scissors inside of patient,” and asked them to convey these stories using speech, gesture, or drawing. To control for sensorimotor differences, participants also did a non-narrative control task in which they had to describe the spatial properties of objects, for example binoculars.
The brain networks activated during the cross-modal headline production overlapped with networks involved in the “theory of the mind,” implicating an inference of thoughts, feelings, and intentions from the stories’ characters. CNS spoke with Brown about these results and next steps for the research.
CNS: How did you become interested in this research area?
Brown: My lab, the NeuroArts Lab, looks at the neuroscience of the arts, and so an important question for this field is how narrative ideas can be communicated using different modalities of expression, mainly speech, gesture, and image generation. I had worked on all of these modalities separately and so I wanted to do a comparative analysis to see what these modalities have in common when communicating narrative ideas through storytelling.
Part of the importance of this topic is that, within the field of language origins, there is a longstanding debate between voice-first models and gesture-first models. Hence, we are interested in understanding what is common across communicative modalities once you control for their sensorimotor differences.
CNS: Can you highlight any novel aspects of your study design?
Brown: On top of this being the first narrative-production study to compare speech, gesture, and drawing, we had participants do the drawing task using an MRI-compatible drawing tablet that allowed them to see their drawings while creating them. Many previous studies of drawing have used drawing methods that did not permit participants to see their drawings while in the scanner. Finally, we used amateur artists as our participants so that they would have a reasonable ability to draw quickly, since most people in the general population are not skilled at drawing.
Aristotle proposed 2,300 years ago that plot is the most important aspect of narrative, and that character is secondary. Our brain results show that people approach narrative in a strongly character-centered and psychological manner.
CNS: What were your most excited to find?
Brown: Pretty much the exact same set of brain areas came up for each modality once we subtracted out the modality-specific activations – e.g., the voice for speech and the hand for drawing and pantomime. Importantly, these areas are part of the theory-of-mind network, which is involved in inferring the thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and intentions of other people. This is contrast to brain areas that process plot-related information related to actions and event sequences. Hence, the activation profile in our study suggested that participants adopted a character-centered approach to conveying the narrative, rather than an approach oriented towards actions, events, and episodes.
CNS: What do you most want people to understand about this work?
Brown: Aristotle proposed 2,300 years ago that plot is the most important aspect of narrative, and that character is secondary. Our brain results show that people approach narrative in a strongly character-centered and psychological manner, focused on the mental states of the protagonist of the story. Hence, our title, “Storytelling is intrinsically mentalistic”, conveys the idea that people adopt a character-centered approach when creating narratives. In addition, this same approach seems to be adopted no matter whether you convey the story through speaking, gesturing, or drawing. So, the theory-of-mind network seems to be operating cross-modally.
CNS: What’s next for this line of work?
Brown: We next want to do a comparison between narration, as done in the present study, and acting, in other words a comparison between third-person narration about people vs. first-person embodiment of people through character portrayal. We’ve done a previous study of dramatic acting and shown it to affect the theory-of-mind network in a very different manner than narration does. Hence, we would like to look at these two processes side by side in the brain.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz