Storytelling helps us create meaning. Stories help us organize complex information into easily understood formats, and are often used to express important values and cultural knowledge. Surprisingly, little is known about how the brain processes narratives and how they are understood. We are taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the neurobiological systems involved in processing narratives in order to gain new insights into this uniquely human phenomenon.

In one project, for example, we are studying the brain mechanisms that mediate narrative immersion. When we become immersed in a story, the brain shifts from attending to our immediate surroundings to imagining the details of the narrative world. Understanding this process and its underlying neurobiology may be a key to understanding how stories exert their influence.

We are particularly interested in stories told about the things that are most important to us. In one recent project, we looked at stories that invoked sacred values. These non-negotiable values include core personal, nationalistic, or religious values that are closely tied with the psychology of identity, emotion, moral decision making, and social cognition. In our research, we have sought to understand the linguistic and neuropsychological mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of narrative framing using sacred values in influencing a listener’s interpretation of events. In related work, we are also studying the neural basis of deeply held beliefs, and the cognitive systems that we use to defend our most cherished beliefs against counterarguments.


Jonas Kaplan, PhD

Sarah Gimbel, PhD

Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD

Hanna Damasio, MD


Kaplan, J.T., Gimbel, S.I., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, 6:39589, 1-11.

Kaplan, J.T., Gimbel, S. I., Dehghani, M., Immordino-Yang, M-H., Sagae., K., Damasio, H., Gordon, A., Damasio, A. (2016). The neurobiology of narrative cognition: culture, morality, and protected values. Cerebral Cortex. pp. 1-11.

Sagae, K., Gordon, A. S., Dehghani, M. Metke, M., Kim, J. S., Gimbel, S. I., Tipper, C., Kaplan, J. T., & Immordino-Yang, M-H. (2013). A data-driven approach for classification of subjectivity in personal narratives. In Proceedings of the 2013 Workshop on Computational Models of Narrative, OASIcs XX, Scholss Dagstuhl.


Articles about the political beliefs paper appeared in Huffington Post, CNN, Yahoo News, Mashable, Vox, and USC News. The authors can be heard discussing the findings on KPCC, Dr. Drew, and You Are Not So Smart.

“Zoning out or deep thinking? Brain scans show that stories that force us to think about our deepest values activate a region of the brain once thought to be its autopilot, January 7, 2016”

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