Neural Processing of Narratives: From Individual Processing to Viral Propagation
Narratives, in the form of, e.g., written stories, mouth-to-mouth accounts, audiobooks, fiction movies, and media-feeds, powerfully shape the perception of reality and widely influence human decision-making. In this review, we describe findings from recent neuroimaging studies unraveling how narratives influence the human brain, thus shaping perception, cognition, emotions, and decision-making. It appears that narrative sense-making relies on default-mode network (DMN) structures of the brain, especially precuneus. Activity in precuneus further seems to differ for fictitious vs. real narratives. Notably, high inter-subject correlation (ISC) of brain activity during narrative processing seems to predict the efficacy of a narrative. Factors that enhance the ISC of brain activity during narratives include higher levels of attention, emotional arousal, and negative emotional valence. Higher levels of attentional suspense seem to co-vary with activity in the temporoparietal junction, emotional arousal with activity in dorsal attention network, and negative emotional valence with activity in DMN. Lingering after-effects of emotional narratives have been further described in DMN, amygdala, and sensory cortical areas. Finally, inter-individual differences in personality, and cultural-background related analytical and holistic thinking styles, shape ISC of brain activity during narrative perception. Together, these findings offer promising leads for future studies elucidating the effects of narratives on the human brain, and how such effects might predict the efficacy of narratives in modulating decision-making.