The brain and literature: less controlled attention needed in exciting stories

Date of news: 23 December 2021

What happens in your brain when you read a story with exciting plot twists and intriguing characters that is also well written? Cognitive neuroscientist Marloes Mak and fellow researchers dissected the brain systems involved in the aesthetic appreciation of literature.

woman reading a book

When reading literature, readers often experience all kinds of emotions related to aesthetics, such as feelings evoked by particularly well-written or exciting passages. These emotions are still an elusive concept in brain research: it is unclear whether they are supported by general brain systems or whether other, more specific, systems are involved.

To better understand which brain systems are at work during reading, a group of researchers* from Radboud University and elsewhere investigated aesthetic experiences when people listen to literary stories. For this purpose, they used two different aspects of aesthetic engagement: the appreciation of stylistic form (literariness) and the emotional intensity. ‘Literariness and emotional intensity are both aspects of aesthetic experience, with literariness having to do with stylistic form, and emotional intensity with content’, explains cognitive neuroscientist Marloes Mak. 'We investigated whether the influence of stylistic form on the brain differs from the influence of the emotional intensity of the content on the brain.'

Assessing stories

Mak and her colleagues asked 27 participants rate two short fiction stories on literariness. Another 27 participants rated the same two stories for emotional intensity. Mak: 'The test subjects first heard the stories. Then they were shown the words on paper and they could click on the pieces they found striking. In the case of literary intensity, they had to indicate for each word or passage whether it was 'stylistically striking/good' or 'normally' written. And for emotional intensity, they had to rate each word or passage on a scale from 1 ('totally unaffected') to 7 ('intense emotion'). The assessment scores were then linked to MRI brain data from 52 people who had listened to the two stories in the scanner.

Different brain areas

In analysing the results, the researchers found that literariness and emotional intensity activate different neural networks in the brain. Literality leads to increased activation in brain areas charged with language processing. ‘That is logical with this kind of language use’ says Mak.

Emotional intensity, on the other hand, seems to lead to reduced activation in brain areas that are often associated with controlled attention. 'Apparently, there is a relationship between emotional intensity and how strongly you are focusing your attention on that story,' Mak explains. 'You could say that when the story is less exciting, you have to put more effort into focusing your attention on it. Whereas if it is very exciting, it is much easier to engage with and this engagement comes more automatically. This requires less controlled attention.’

How the brain works

There are enough leads for further research, but the results of Mak and her colleagues do show that different aspects of aesthetic involvement in literary stories are supported by different neural systems. Mak explains 'the standard question we get is: can you now tell writers how to write the best possible story? But that is never the goal of this kind of fundamental research. Instead, it helps us to learn more about how our brain works.’

The article ‘Out of the ordinary: neural correlates of literary form and emotional content in aesthetic engagement with literature’ appears in the journal Communications biology and can already be consulted online.

*Franziska Hartung (1), Yuchao Wang (1,2), Marloes Mak (3), Roel Willems (3,4) & Anjan Chatterjee (1)
1 Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, University of Pennsylvania
2 Haverford College
3 Center for Language Studies, Radboud University
4 Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behaviour, Radboud University