Day in and out, we listen to anecdotes told by a variety of people: our next door neighbor, prize-winning authors, TV chefs explaining how grandma taught them to cook. But what exactly happens inside our brains when we process a story? Activity occurs in the default mode network as we attempt to find meaning within the narrative, USC researchers say. Overall, their new research illuminates some of the biological processes underlying our system of beliefs.

The Moral of the Story Is...

"The ancient practice of storytelling is both uniquely human and universal," wrote the authors.

Stories not only help us organize our memories and experiences, they also spread ideas and values. Narratives are instrumental to human culture and psychology, yet little is known about the machinery in our brains that perform the work of processing them. While we know that reading a story involves memory, imagination, emotion, abstract inference, and social knowledge, we also understand something else is required to understand the characters, events, relationships, and, most importantly, its themes.

A take-away from any narrative is what happened, and, based on a story's events, our brains construct a moral. For instance, reading The Tortoise and the Hare we see how focus, steady work, and humility win the race; while Madame Bovary teaches us that using our credit card too much leads to ruin. Yet some values are closely tied to our core identities, explain the authors, and so they take on a special status within our brains. Known as sacred values (or protected values), these are the non-negotiables in life — for example, you would never abuse a child, no matter what.

So, how exactly does the brain process personal narrative embedded with protected values? asked the USC research team. They enlisted the help of 26 American participants, 26 Chinese participants, and 26 Iranian participants. Most of these volunteers were in their mid-20s, about half were male. While being scanned in an fMRI, the participants read stories translated into their native language: English, Mandarin Chinese, or Farsi. Each of the selected 40 stories, which were told in a natural manner, involved a potentially protected value: cheating on a spouse, having an abortion, or getting in a fight. Participants not only read the stories but also answered questions while undergoing the scan.

Autopilot

"We asked the participants inside the scanner about whether or not the protagonist of the story was acting on the basis of a protected value," Dr. Jonas Kaplan of the Dornsife Brain and Creativity Institute told Medical Daily in an email. When asked about their own values, the two judgments tended to correlate, he explained. 

While the participants read the stories, the researchers observed activity in their posterior medial, medial prefrontal, and temporo-parietal cortices: the default mode network of the brain.

Located at the center of many distributed brain networks, researchers believe the default mode network performs an important role, possibly a whole variety of significant functions. For instance, some of its nodes are known to be involved in social and moral cognition; also correlated activity occurs here while the brain is at rest, with reduced activity happening during tasks that demand attention. Often, this incompletely understood network is referred to as the brain's autopilot.

Stories involving protected values activated the default mode network to a greater degree, Kaplan and his colleagues discovered, yet the level of activity varied based on culture.

"Really what we found is that the Iranians had the largest difference between their reaction to protected and non-protected value stories, while the Chinese showed the smallest differences," Kaplan said. "Similarly, in our questionnaires, Iranians tended to report the highest concern for protected values, and the Chinese the least. So we think the differences in brain activity may reflect cultural differences in concern for protected values."

Ultimately, because default mode network activity was greater when reading compared to resting, Kaplan and his colleagues interpret this as the brain's attempt to find meaning in the stories.

"Also, activity increased from the beginning to end of the story, and was greatest in the last part of the story when the meaning comes together," Kaplan said. Paying no mind at all, our brains perform their most profound work.

Source: Kaplan JT, Gimbell SI, Dehghani M, et al. Processing Narratives Concerning Protected Values: A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Neural Correlates. Cerebral Cortex. 2016.