It has been found that at least two kinds of brain networks are involved when people read or listen to literary fiction. One network, which includes the anterior medial prefrontal cortex and the right temporo-parietal junction is called the mentalizing network. It is concerned with understanding other people, that is to say with theory-of-mind. Another area, which includes the motor cortex, is concerned with action.
Annabel Nijhof and Roel Willems (2015) report that when people read or listen to stories there are individual differences in their preference for using one or other of these two networks, and hence for engaging in one or other of these two modes of thinking.
The researchers asked 18 people to lie in an fMRI machine while they listened to excerpts from three literary novels. The excerpts were scored for mentalizing content, that is to say for thoughts and beliefs of characters, and for action content, depictions of what characters did.
Some people with a preference for thinking about characters’ thoughts and beliefs in fiction showed high activation of their mentalization networks when they listened to excerpts with mentalizing content. At the same time they showed a correlated de-activation in their motor areas. Others showed a different pattern. They showed high activation in their motor networks when they listened to excerpts about what literary characters were doing. At the same time they showed a correlated diminution of activation of their mentalizing networks
Nijhof and Willems say that their study provides evidence of two qualitatively different styles of entering the simulated worlds of fiction. They say that: “Participants could be placed on a continuum of how much they relied on mentalizing or motor simulation while listening to literary fiction stories” (p. 12). They say, also, that these may not be the only two modes of literary engagement. They propose that this kind of study shows the value of neuro-imaging in our growing empirical understanding of how people immerse themselves in fiction.
Nijhof, A.D. & Willems, R. M. (2015). Simulating fiction: Individual differences in literature comprehension revealed with fMRI. PLoS One, 10, e0116492. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116492
Image: part of Nijhof & Willems’s Figure 1, showing areas of the right cortex including the distributed mentalizing network in blue, and the more localized action network in yellow.