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If you grew up reading Harry Potter (or Lord of the Rings, as the case may be), chances are you’d have liked to move to the world of Hogwarts (or Middle Earth), and spent time play-acting scenes in your head as if you were in them. This way of enjoying fiction isn’t uncommon. On the contrary, the potentially intimidating levels of detail that works of fantasy offer often lets us move in with the characters we enjoy reading about. As a result, these books have a not inconsiderable influence on our personal development. It isn’t for nothing that story-telling is a large part of most, if not all, cultures.

That being the case, it was only a matter of time before someone took a probe to our brains and tried to understand what really was going as we read a great book. Those someones are Annabel Nijhof and Roel Willems, both neuroscientists affiliated with the Radboud University in The Netherlands. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that employs a scanner to identify the brain’s activity by measuring blood flow around it, “to investigate how individuals differently employ neural networks important for understanding others’ beliefs and intentions, and for sensori-motor simulation while listening to excerpts from literary novels”.

If you’re interested in their methods, their paper published in PLOS One on February 11 discusses them in detail. And as much as I’d like to lay them out here, I’m also in a hurry to move on to the findings.

Nijhof and Willems found that there were two major modes in which listeners’ brains reacted to the prompts, summed up as mentalizing and activating. A mentalizing listener focused on the “thoughts and beliefs” depicted in the prompt while an activating listener paid more attention to descriptions of actions and replaying them in his/her head. And while some listeners did both, the scientists found that the majority either predominantly mentalized or predominantly activated.

This study references another from 2012 that describes how the neural system associated with mentalizing kicks in when people are asked to understand motivations, and that associated with activating kicks in when they’re asked to understand actions. So an extrapolation of results between both studies yields a way for neuroscientists to better understand the neurocognitive mechanisms associated with assimilating stories, especially fiction.

At this point, a caveat from the paper is pertinent:

It should be noted that the correlation we observed between Mentalizing and Action networks, only holds for one of the Mentalizing regions, namely the anterior medial prefrontal cortex. It is tempting to conclude that this region plays a privileged role during fiction comprehension, in comparison to the other parts of the mentalizing network

… while of course this isn’t the case, so more investigation – as well as further review of extant literature – is necessary.

The age-range of participants in the Nijhof-Willems study was 18-27 years, with an average age of 22.2 years. Consequent prompt: a similar study but with children as subjects could be useful in determining how a younger brain assimilates stories, and checking if there exist any predilections toward mentalizing or activating – or both or altogether something else – which then change as the kids grow up. (I must add that such a study would be especially useful to me because I recently joined a start-up that produces supplementary science-learning content for 10-15-year-olds in India.)

So… are you a mentalizing reader or an activating reader?

10 comments

  1. Best wishes on the start-up! The study about mentalizing and activating is interesting but wish there was more direct implications for learning – is it simply a learning style question influencing how the learning materials need to be positioned or does one style trump another in terms of retention, engagement with content and application to out-from-left-field questions/problems?

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    1. Thank you! If I’m not mistaken, the Nijhof-Willems study does not assess the implications for learning, so I don’t know if they have anything to say about retention in terms of problem-solving. That said, I’d think direct implications of any other kind are absent because this study seems to be the first of its kind and it’d be too soon to speculate on that front. Again, I might be mistaken or even have misunderstood you.

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  2. I think I do both but I’m on definitely more on the mentalising side. The activating side can be exhausting. It also slows down the experience, which I can’t forego even if the experience is not as rich.

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    1. I’ve a friend who’s definitely an activating reader, but I would think he’s an exception because mentalizing is easier and as you said doesn’t hamper the flow. I wonder if it’s telling that I often skips action-oriented narratives in fiction I read. 😛

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  3. It would be cool to figure out if creating learning materials for children can take advantage of these two styles – learning materials rich in supporting mentalizing might be targeted for the mentalizing kind, to communicate key learning concepts. Similar repositioning of learning materials with activating predeliction might be targeted towards learners that respond better to activating. With advances in fmri we might be moving towards educational utopia where learning can be fine-grained and aligned with individualistic learning styles. Right now the one-size-fits-all approach is wreaking havoc on young minds and wastes human potential. just my .02.

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      1. The Times write-up (below) talks about the difficulties of doing experiments in classrooms. With big data enabled collection methods, one might be able to derive interesting results.

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