Stories that force us to think about our deepest values activate a region of the brain once thought to be its autopilot

January 7, 2016
brain
Credit: public domain

Everyone has at least a few non-negotiable values. These are the things that, no matter what the circumstance, you'd never compromise for any reason - such as "I'd never hurt a child," or "I'm against the death penalty."

Real-time brain scans show that when people read stories that deal with these core, protected values, the "default mode network" in their brains activates.

This network was once thought of as just the brain's autopilot, since it has been shown to be active when you're not engaged by anything in the outside world - but studies like this one suggest that it's actually working to find meaning in the narratives.

"The brain is devoting a huge amount of energy to whatever that network is doing. We need to understand why," said Jonas Kaplan of the USC Dornsife Brain and Creativity Institute. Kaplan was the lead author of the study, which was published on Jan. 7 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Kaplan thinks that it's not just that the brain is presented with a moral quandary, but rather that the quandary is presented in a narrative format.

"Stories help us to organize information in a unique way," he said.

To find relevant stories, the researchers sorted through 20 million blog posts using software developed at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.

"We wanted to know how people tell stories in their daily lives. It was kind of like finding stories in their natural habitat," said Kaplan, assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

That 20 million was pared down to 40 stories that each contained an example of a crisis involving a potentially protected value: cheating on a spouse, having an abortion, crossing a picket line, or getting in a fight.

Those stories were translated into Mandarin Chinese and Farsi, and then read by American, Chinese and Iranian participants in their native language while their brains were scanned by fMRI. They also answered general questions about the stories while being scanned.

Stories that participants said involved values that were protected to them activated the in their brain to a greater degree. In addition, the level of activation varied from culture to culture. On average, Iranians showed the greatest level of activation in the study, while the Chinese participants showed the least.

"Stories appear to be a fundamental way in which the organizes information in a practical and memorable manner. It is important to understand the neural mechanisms required to do this, and this study is a step in that direction," said Antonio Damasio, senior author of the study. Damasio is co-director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, holder of the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and a professor of psychology and neurology.

It's not yet clear whether a value either is or is not protected, or whether the sacredness of a value is on a sliding scale. But in a nation where political beliefs are growing more polarized and entrenched, it's important to understand what biological processes lie at the root of these values, Kaplan said.

"People will often hold political values as protected values and protected values are at the root of many political conflicts around the world, which is why they're interesting to us," he said.

Explore further: Holocaust survivors' memories help researchers map brain circuitry for gratitude

Related Stories

Holocaust survivors' memories help researchers map brain circuitry for gratitude

October 19, 2015
Neuroscientists have mapped how the human brain experiences gratitude with help from an unexpected resource: Holocaust survivors' testimonies.

Scientists probe connection between sight and touch in the brain

September 8, 2011
Shakespeare famously referred to "the mind's eye," but scientists at USC now have also identified a "mind's touch."

To earn gratitude, put some effort into it

December 7, 2015
Many people hold the door open for strangers. But what do people give in return?

Surprising study shows that brains process the pain of villains more than the pain of people we like

October 16, 2013
Counterintuitive findings from a new USC study show that the part of the brain that is associated with empathizing with the pain of others is activated more strongly by watching the suffering of hateful people as opposed ...

Research shows that attention, imagination equally important for creativity

July 2, 2015
The role that attention plays in generating new and useful ideas is controversial among neuroscientists. Some neuroimaging studies have shown that creativity involves more cognitive control, or focused attention. Other studies ...

Recommended for you

'Residual echo' of ancient humans in scans may hold clues to mental disorders

July 26, 2017
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a "residual echo" from our ancient past. The more ...

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

Lutein may counter cognitive aging, study finds

July 25, 2017
Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.