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J Cogn Neurosci. 2018 Sep;30(9):1298-1314. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01294. Epub 2018 Jun 19.

Storytelling Is Intrinsically Mentalistic: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study of Narrative Production across Modalities.

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McMaster University.


People utilize multiple expressive modalities for communicating narrative ideas about past events. The three major ones are speech, pantomime, and drawing. The current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify common brain areas that mediate narrative communication across these three sensorimotor mechanisms. In the scanner, participants were presented with short narrative prompts akin to newspaper headlines (e.g., "Surgeon finds scissors inside of patient"). The task was to generate a representation of the event, either by describing it verbally through speech, by pantomiming it gesturally, or by drawing it on a tablet. In a control condition designed to remove sensorimotor activations, participants described the spatial properties of individual objects (e.g., "binoculars"). Each of the three modality-specific subtractions produced similar results, with activations in key components of the mentalizing network, including the TPJ, posterior STS, and posterior cingulate cortex. Conjunction analysis revealed that these areas constitute a cross-modal "narrative hub" that transcends the three modalities of communication. The involvement of these areas in narrative production suggests that people adopt an intrinsically mentalistic and character-oriented perspective when engaging in storytelling, whether using speech, pantomime, or drawing.


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