The art of storytelling has ancient origins as humans have relied on it to engage, to share emotions and to relate personal experiences. A new Canadian study finds that no matter how a narrative is expressed — through words, gestures or drawings — our brains relate best to the characters, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.

“We tell stories in conversation each and every day,” said Dr. Steven Brown, lead author of the study, who runs the NeuroArts Lab at McMaster University and is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. “Very much like literary stories, we engage with the characters and are wired to make stories people-oriented.”

The study appears in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Researchers wanted to learn how narrative ideas are communicated using three different forms of expression, and to identify a so-called narrative hub within the brain.

To do this, investigators scanned the brains of participants using fMRI as they were presented short headlines. For example, the brain scans occurred while the participants were told “Surgeon finds scissors inside of patient” or “Fisherman rescues boy from freezing lake.”

Participants were then asked to convey the stories using speech, gestures or drawing, as one would do in a game of Pictionary. The illustrations were created using an MRI-compatible drawing tablet which allowed the participants to see their drawings.

Researchers found that no matter what form of story telling the participants used, the brain networks that were activated were the “theory-of-mind” network, which is affected by the character’s intentions, motivations, beliefs, emotions and actions.

“Aristotle proposed 2,300 years ago that plot is the most important aspect of narrative, and that character is secondary,” Brown said.

The new findings seem to run counter to this belief as individuals relate to a more personal orientation.

“Our brain results show that people approach narrative in a strongly character-centered and psychological manner, focused on the mental states of the protagonist of the story.”

Subsequent research will compare narration and acting to determine what happens when we tell stories in the third-person or portray characters in the first-person.

Source: McMaster University