Human cognition emerges within a complex, inseparably bio-cultural body-brain-world interaction, and can only be studied assuming context- and time dependent situatedness.
Neuroscience experiments with cinematic narratives as stimuli:
strong immersion in drama
sharing characters' experiences
Tracing narrative sense-making in the brain - a case study
Common brain networks activated by narratives in a movie and its script – an fMRI study
We are exposed to narratives in our everyday life in discussions, when reading novels, listening to the news on the radio, or watching a movie. What happens in the brain when we follow a narrative? To isolate narrative-related brain networks we decided to look for the networks reacting to the same narrative in a similar manner despite different media of presentation (audiovisual vs. textual). We collected 3-T functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from 31 healthy adults during two separate runs as they were (1) viewing a narrative movie and (2) reading its script synchronized with the events of the movie.
We employed independent component analysis (ICA; Calhoun & Adali IEEE Rev Biomed Eng 2012) to segregate 40 independent components (ICs). By looking at the correlation of the timecourses between the two runs enabled pinpointing the functional networks particularly engaged with the same narrative content. In turn, using different perceptual stimulus conditions precluded highly correlated activation in early visual and auditory areas. The components appeared strongly coinciding with areas that have been demonstrated to have long temporal receptive windows when listening to a narrated story (Lerner et al. J Neurosci 2011).
The figure shows 5 ICs whose timecourses correlated highest between the movie-viewing and script-reading conditions (correlation coefficient up to 0.71).
Unique stimulus combination of the movie-viewing vs. script-reading with same narrative content in our fMRI study provides new insights into brain networks involved in the narrative comprehension. Our results suggest that the identified networks not only relate to long temporal receptive windows, as demonstrated in previous studies, but they also process narrative-related content independent of how the narrative is presented. (In poster session 186, Social Cognition: Neural Substrates I, Sunday, November 10, 2013, Society for Neuroscience 2013, San Diego; publication in preparation).
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Narratives are intersubjectively shared
The advantages of narratives are many: they are highly engaging and can be repeated identically to infinite number of subjects, they also allow priming of the subjects' mental framework to a great extent. In addition, narratives rely on the drama conventions, that have been recycled in the human cultures for thousands of years. Consider, for instance, Aristotle's ideas about persuasion and contagious nature of emotional stories.
Narratives deal with complex stuff
Narratives do deal with complex aspects of human life. We study complexities of life by means of established narrative systems and rules of storytelling in general and genre conventions in particular.
Considering the increasing interest of neuroscientists to use audiovisual material as stimulus, one needs to differentiate any realistic non-narrative video stimuli (e.g., improvised conversations or doings related to everyday stuff without dramatically motivated goal) from that of highly controlled drama stimuli.
People are complex. Unavoidably, subjects often come from very different socio-economical background and they have very different life-experiences. We argue, however, that due to their life-long engagement with entertainment and narratives (e.g., fairytales, books, cartoons, film, television), it is possible to achieve a common grounds for intersubjectively shared experiences. This is so, because people growing up in the Western society do consume media in excess, and thus can be assumed to be well educated also to narrative conventions. Already from the first images and the first sounds such a person recognizes the genre of narrative media, and this automatically primes genre expectations (style, story turns, characters' behavior, and so on).
Enactive avatar simulates the other
We are developing an enactive avatar for neuroscience purposes. The use of humanlike avatar that is responsive to the psychophysiological measures of the subject-experience in real-time, will extend our research on how one's embodied largely unconscious attitudes towards the others is dependent on the context and continuously modifies our brain-body in terms of intersubjectively shared situatedness. See enactive cinema
See more, for isntance, in Tikka P, Kaipainen M. (2014). From naturalistic neuroscience to modeling radical embodiment with narrative enactive systems. Front. Hum. Neurosci., 06 October 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00794
Tikka P, Väljamäe A, Borst de A, Pugliese R, Ravaja N, Kaipainen M, Takala T. (2012). Enactive cinema paves way towards understanding complex real-time social interaction in neuroimaging experiments. Perspective-article, ed. Kai Vogeley. Research Topic: Towards a neuroscience of social interaction. Front. Hum. Neurosci., 01 November 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00298.
Images: Film Obsession (dir. Pia Tikka) by courtesy of Oblomovies Oy, 2005. Actors: Maria Järvenhelmi, Matti Onnismaa, Maija Junno.