Have you ever panicked because you realized you forgot your headphones at home and you had to sit quietly through the commute? Listening to music makes anything better, but streaming an audio book can make everything disappear.
After storytelling became so widely available, scientists became curious about what goes on in our brains during the experience of listening to podcasts. They tested specifically for “The Moth Radio Hour,” using a scanner to track brain activity.
The mapped out experience of how the brain absorbs and reacts to a story was featured in the journal Nature; the study was conducted by a research team from the University of California, Berkeley.
Both hemispheres of the brain lit up, as sensory, emotional and memory networks were activated. Some textbooks had previously suggested that stories can be “contained” in just one part of the brain, but that theory proved wrong.
Seven volunteers had been studied by the team led by Jack Gallant, a professor of psychology, and Alexander Huth, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience.
They were played episodes of “The Moth” – which contain first-person stories of love, betrayal, loss, flight from an abusive husband, and more – while their brain activity was recorded with an MRI machine.
With the help of computational methods, the team broke down the stories into 12 different units of meaning: social elements, for instance, like parties and friends, as well as dates, locations, and emotions.
Next, they retested that model to see how the MRI activity could be predicted while the volunteers were played another Moth story. It turns out that related words like mother and father trigger the same parts of people’s brains.
Our brains experience a whole new world when we hear words in stories – which was identified by monitoring blood flow to different parts of the brain.
Each word and concept contained in the narrative flow, adds to the experience as the brain alters layers of word networks. That’s why we have blank stares when we listen to podcasts: A living internal reality literally takes over the brain.
If you’ve ever been lost listening to a good story, it’s because that kaleidoscope of activation feels intuitively right. If you haven’t discovered the world of podcasts yet, you should try it.
In the meantime, don’t judge the ear-budded zombies walking the streets or riding subways. They’re in a completely different world.
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