Functional Brain Connectivity During Narrative Processing Relates to Transportation and Story Influence

Front Hum Neurosci. 2021 Jul 5;15:665319. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2021.665319. eCollection 2021.


Engaging with narratives involves a complex array of cognitive and affective processes. These processes make stories persuasive in ways that standard arguments are not, though the underlying reasons for this remain unclear. Transportation theory proposes a potential explanation for this: narratives are processed in a way which makes individuals feel immersed in the world of a story, which in turn leads people to resonate emotionally with the events of the story. Recent fMRI studies have shown that the posterior medial cortex (PMC) and anterior insula (AI) play important roles in understanding the meaning of stories and experiencing the feelings they produce. In this study, we aimed to explore the AI's and PMC's role in narrative processing by measuring their functional connectivity with the rest of the brain during story listening, and how connectivity changes as a function of narrative transportation and the persuasiveness of the story. We analyzed data from 36 right-handed subjects who listened to two stories, obtained from podcasts, inside the fMRI scanner. After the scan, subjects were asked a series of questions, including a measure of how transported into the story they felt, how likely they would be to donate to causes related to the messages of the stories. We used searchlight multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) to classify functional connectivity maps using seeds in both the AI and PMC and to compare these maps between participants who differed in transportation and prosocial intention. We found that connectivity to various regions successfully distinguished between high and low ratings on each of these behavioral measures with accuracies over 75%. However, only one pattern of connectivity was consistent across both stories: PMC-inferior frontal gyrus connectivity successfully distinguished high and low ratings of narrative transportation in both stories. All other findings were not consistent across stories. Instead, we found that patterns of connectivity may relate more to the specific content of the story rather than to a universal way in which narratives are processed.

Keywords: MVPA; fMRI; functional connectivity; narrative; narrative transportation; naturalistic stimuli.