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, University of Southern California
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

Cognitive training helps regain a younger-working brain

January 23, 2018
Relentless cognitive decline as we age is worrisome, and it is widely thought to be an unavoidable negative aspect of normal aging. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, however, ...

Lifting the veil on 'valence,' brain study reveals roots of desire, dislike

January 23, 2018
The amygdala is a tiny hub of emotions where in 2016 a team led by MIT neuroscientist Kay Tye found specific populations of neurons that assign good or bad feelings, or "valence," to experience. Learning to associate pleasure ...

Your brain responses to music reveal if you're a musician or not

January 23, 2018
How your brain responds to music listening can reveal whether you have received musical training, according to new Nordic research conducted in Finland (University of Jyväskylä and AMI Center) and Denmark (Aarhus University).

New neuron-like cells allow investigation into synthesis of vital cellular components

January 22, 2018
Neuron-like cells created from a readily available cell line have allowed researchers to investigate how the human brain makes a metabolic building block essential for the survival of all living organisms. A team led by researchers ...

Finding unravels nature of cognitive inflexibility in fragile X syndrome

January 22, 2018
Mice with the genetic defect that causes fragile X syndrome (FXS) learn and remember normally, but show an inability to learn new information that contradicts what they initially learned, shows a new study by a team of neuroscientists. ...

Epilepsy linked to brain volume and thickness differences

January 22, 2018
Epilepsy is associated with thickness and volume differences in the grey matter of several brain regions, according to new research led by UCL and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

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.