Published: 10th October 2017
Reading 'stories' doesn't just make you smarter, it can make you feel empathy towards people from pretty much anywhere
Researchers sorted through 20 million blog posts which were later shortlisted to 40 personal stories and then translated to Mandarin, Chinese or Persian
Reading stories is a universal experience that may result in people feeling greater empathy for each other, regardless of a person's origin or language, a study has found. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) in the US found patterns of brain activation when people find meaning in stories, regardless of their language.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the scientists mapped brain responses to narratives in three different languages — English, Persian and Mandarin Chinese. The study, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, opens up the possibility that exposure to narrative storytelling can have a widespread effect on triggering better self- awareness and empathy for others, regardless of the language or origin of the person being exposed to it.
"Even given these fundamental differences in language, which can be read in a different direction or contain a completely different alphabet altogether, there is something universal about what occurs in the brain at the point when we are processing narratives," said Morteza Dehghani, a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. The researchers sorted through more than 20 million blog posts of personal stories using a software. The posts were narrowed down to 40 stories about personal topics such as divorce or telling a lie. They were then translated into Mandarin Chinese and Persian, and read by a total of 90 American, Chinese and Iranian participants in their native language while their brains were scanned by MRI.
The participants also answered general questions about the stories during the scan. Using state-of-the-art machine learning and techniques, and an analysis involving over 44 billion classifications, the researchers were able to "reverse engineer" the data from these brain scans to determine the story the reader was processing in each of the three languages. The neuroscientists were able to read the participants' minds as they were reading.