Cognitive Science (Swarthmore)

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    Neural Correlates of Aesthetic Engagement with Literature
    (2020) Wang, Yuchao; Chatterjee, Anjan
    Literary stories contain artistic value in what is said and how it is said. Reading literature typically affects readers emotionally: they may experience empathy, suspense, and even physical sensations like chills because of the wording used. To better understand what brain networks are co-opted when laypeople engage with literature, we modeled functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data while people listened to literary stories. We tested the hypothesis that emotional and literary experiences of narratives are neurally dissociable. We also hypothesized that emotional arousal during story engagement is supported by social understanding while comprehending literary language is supported by language cognition and attention. Ratings of emotional arousal (N=27) and literariness (N=27) of two stories were collected from two independent groups of raters to create two regressors (emotional arousal and literariness). These regressors were used to parametrically model blood-oxygen-level-dependent signal changes of 52 participants listening to the same two narratives. The fMRI results show that emotion and literariness ratings of narratives are correlated with independent brain networks. Highly emotional content leads to increased activation in bilateral superior frontal gyri, right medial superior temporal sulcus, and left tempo-parietal junction, an area predominantly involved in social cognition. Literary language in the narrative activates left perisylvian areas, including the angular gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus, both of which process and integrate semantic information during language comprehension. Overall, our results support our hypotheses and shed light on the function of and interaction between attention, social understanding, and semantic networks during literary engagement.