Monday, 3 October 2011

Research Bulletin: Neuroscience of Narrative Emotions

We are only now beginning to understand how it is that the brain acts to comprehend the content of stories. One interesting aspect of comprehension is the evocation of emotions that occurs when we read, hear, or watch a narrative. Emotions are an integral part of the narrative experience and likely one of the main reasons why stories appear to have such universal appeal. Although emotions have long been a topic of neuroscience investigations, the study of narrative emotions specifically has only now been broached. Mikkel Wallentin (Aarhus University; also, like Keith Oatley, a published fiction author) and his collaborators took an audio recording of The Ugly Duckling and had one group of students rate the valence (positive or negative) and intensity (high or low) of their emotional experience for each sentence, creating a rich profile of their emotional response. An entirely separate group of individuals listened to the story while in an MRI scanner, which recorded neural responses. Heart-rate measures were also taken, simultaneously. What the researchers found was that the emotional intensity profiles of the first group were associated with changes in heart-rate in the second group. Moreover, these heart-rate changes had been associated with emotional responses in previous research. These emotional response profiles also predicted neural responses in the brain, in areas previously associated with emotional reactions to very simple stimuli. These areas included the amygdala, part of the thalamus, and large parts of the lateral temporal cortices. The convergence of results across these three different emotional measures (intensity profiles from one group, heart-rate and neural response from another) indicate that some meaningful shared emotional response occurs across individuals, and that emotions experienced in a narrative context bear some resemblance to emotional responses to very simple stimuli. It is certainly very encouraging to see this kind of innovative narrative research being conducted and published, particularly in highly influential peer-reviewed journals.

Wallentin, M., Nielsen, A. H., Vuust, P., Dohn, A., Roepstorff, A., and Lund, T. E. (2011). Amygdala and heart rate variability responses from listening to emotionally intense parts of a story. NeuroImage, 58, 963-973.

(For a copy of this article, please contact RM [e-mail in profile])

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Fabio said...

"Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them." -- Tolstoy, "What is Art?"

That Tolstoy's statement seems true -- intuitively so -- I never doubted. But when scientists hook up the brain of a storyteller, map it, and then do the same to the story receiver, what they find is mind-boggling: the same exact regions light up. The first I heard of this was on Radiolab, "Are you my brain double?" (
The researcher who was interviewed (Lauren Silbert of Princeton) has a paper out ( which delves deep into the subject, but is somewhat drier than the elegantly sound-engineered radio episode. Nevertheless, through the paper's abstract words shines a fearful symmetry which is awesome to behold:

"We used the speaker’s spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners’ brain activity and found that the speaker’s activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener’s activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate."

Four "activity" in one sentence is hard to swallow, but we get it -- and when we tie the implications of the paper back to Tolstoy's words it almost brings tears to our eyes, does it not? We are, when we deep-read, when we connect, retracing the steps back to the author's original experience, and actually having that experience ourselves.

PS: This blog is mind-blogling!

Raymond A. Mar said...

Thank you for your kind words! We are grateful that you enjoy our site. This is a very interesting study and the RadioLab episode provides a very fair treatment of the results. Well worth listening to. Although not specifically about fiction, it does shed some interesting light on communication and narration, and the idea of brain synchronization when people "get" what we're saying. Thanks for bringing this to our readers' attention.

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