When we listen to stories, we immerse ourselves into the situations described and empathize with the feelings of the characters. Only recently has it become possible to find out how exactly this process works in the brain. Roel Willems and Annabel Nijhof have now succeeded using an fMRI scanner to measure how people listen to a literary story. Scientific journal PLOS ONE publishes the results on February 11.
Everybody immerses themselves in stories in their own way. However, due to technological limitations, how we comprehend literature has only previously been studied at a group level without looking at individual differences. Willems and Nijhof show in this study that people focus on different aspects of the story when listening to literature.
Audiobooks in the fMRI scanner
Participants listened to chapters of different audiobooks, for example Island Guests by Vonne van der Meer and Thaw by Rascha Peper. Roel Willems of the Donders Institute at Radboud University says, 'We found that there were strong individual preferences; some participants were particularly focused on understanding the intentions and feelings of the main character, while other participants were much more focused on visualising the actions of the characters.'
Empathising with literature
'Most people can both empathise with feelings as well as imagine the visual surroundings and the actions of the characters,' according to Willems, 'but our fMRI results show that each subject has a preference for one over the other.' This neuroscientific study is one of the first to prove individual differences when it comes to empathising with literature.
Words, sentences, stories
This study is also unique because Willems studies 'real' language, i.e. language used in everyday life. 'Language in the brain is often studied by providing subjects with individual words and sentences. But, of course, language is much more than that! We let our participants listen to longer stories. This makes our publication a good example of brain research studying language that is very similar to the language people actually use.'
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