The Narrative in the Neurons

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car. It was careening from side to side on the narrow road.
“He’ll hit us! We’d better climb this hillside—and fast!” Frank exclaimed, as the boys brought their motorcycles to a screeching halt and leaped off.
“On the double!” Joe cried out as they started up the steep embankment.

Some readers will recognize the quick-witted motorcyclists here as the Hardy Boys, brothers and heroes of a long-popular series of kids’ mystery books. The amateur teenage sleuths do manage to escape the reckless driver in this scene, but the close call entangles them in a perilous adventure involving stolen jewels, false accusation, deathbed confession, and clever detective work. Good stuff.

These are actually the opening lines of The Tower Treasure, first published in 1927. I read this passage in the 1950s, and kids are apparently still getting sucked into the story even today. What is it about narratives like these that grab our attention? We may quickly move on to more sophisticated tastes in literature, but even a simple story such as this has power to grab our attention, engage our brains. But what’s the brain responding to exactly?

Psychologists are very interested in this question, and have some ideas. One theory is that we all have many “scripts” stored in our neurons. These scripts are derived from past experiences, and words activate these scripts, transforming the printed text into something more like a real-life experience. The opening scene from The Tower Treasure is actually rather spare in its language, yet for the reader it can be a rich encounter. We visualize a narrow road, perhaps one that we have actually known from somewhere. We feel our grip on the motorcycle handlebars, and hear the screech of the tires; we imagine leaping and the difficult pitch of the embankment and the effort of climbing.

At least that’s the idea, which a team of psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis decided to test in the lab. Jeffrey Zacks and his colleagues suspected that several different regions of the brain collaborate in the reading of a tale, each supplying a specialized script based on a particular kind of real-world experience. So, for example, one group of neurons might supply a story’s sense of space and movement (the careening car on a narrow road), while another might contribute the sensation of handling objects (clutching the grips), and still another, the characters’ goals (climbing to safety).

To test this idea, the scientists used a brain scanner to see what regions lit up during the reading of a story. They watched the brains of volunteers as they read four short narrative passages. Each clause in each story was coded for the script it should theoretically trigger: movement in space, sense of time passing, characters’ goals, interaction with physical objects, and so forth. The idea was to see if different parts of the brain lit up as the reader’s imagined situation unfolded.

And they did. The details of the brain anatomy aren’t important here, but clearly there are several different neuron clusters involved in story comprehension. For example, a particular area of the brain ramped up when readers were thinking about intent and goal-directed action, but not meaningless motion. Motor neurons flashed when characters were grasping objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activated when characters were navigating their world.

These findings, reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, strongly suggest that readers are far from passive consumers of words and stories. Indeed, it appears that we dynamically activate real-world scripts that help us to comprehend a narrative—and those active scripts in turn enrich the story beyond its mere words and sentences. In this way, reading is much like remembering or imagining a vivid event.

It’s possible, the psychologists say, that not just reading but all thinking may be similarly embodied in stored, real-life experiences. In this sense, language may have been an adaptive strategy for efficient and vivid communication of experiences to others. Put another way, storytelling may have evolved as a tool of survival.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “We’re Only Human” blog at Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 4:53 PM


At 4:10 PM , Blogger Lex said...

Wow what an interesting post!

I was recently reading about a similar study which, rather than focusing upon neuron activity in the brain while reading a story, focused upon trying to interpret how people process scenes in a graphic tale (ie a movie or video). There was a lot of interesting findings about how the brain processes, and remembers/recognizes, certain objects based upon the angularity of original exposure and the angle the object is being viewed at during the test.

What I am now curious to see, is how individuals with different mental illnesses process the same information...have you heard anything in regards to this?

I would very much love to continue this conversation should your schedule allow it! I would even love to quote you on my own blog, the Mental Health Recovery Blog should you feel comfortable with such a reference. Of course, if your not I would love to discuss this here!

I look forward to speaking with you more!

Warm regards,
MHCD Research and Evaluations