Brain Capitalizes on Emotion

Evidence that storytelling evokes a physical response

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) When listening to stories full of emotion, it's normal to have a personal response. Storytelling can also stimulate a physical response in the human brain.

The brain may capitalize on feelings of high emotion and promote moral behavior, according to brain researchers.

"Reading stories can make you feel good."

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute learned that individuals who were told stories designed to evoke compassion and admiration for virtue reported feeling a physical sensation. She determined that those physical pangs of emotion were real and could be detected with brain scans.

It may be evidence, according to Immordino-Yang, that pro-social behavior is a natural part of human survival. She noted that such emotions are fundamental for morality and social learning.

In one instance, a man listened to a story about a boy's selflessness toward his mother. He said it made him feel as though there was a balloon under his sternum. He then paused to consider his relationship with his own parents, eventually promising to show more gratitude toward them.

Similar reactions were reported by other study volunteers. Investigators provided an emotional story, recorded the participant's reaction and used brain scans to record the physiological response. About 50 such assessments have been performed at USC and in Beijing.

This research was funded by the Brain and Creativity Institute, the USC Provost's grant for Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Rossier School of Education.

The research was published in the July issue of Emotion Review.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 10, 2011
Last Updated:
November 14, 2011