Reading stories is a universal experience that may result in people feeling greater empathy for each other, regardless of a person's original language, a study has found.
Researchers at 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 while being scanned. 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. In the case of each language, reading each story resulted in unique patterns of activations in the "default mode network" of the brain.
This network engages interconnected brain regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the inferior parietal lobe, the lateral temporal cortex and hippocampal formation, researchers said.
The default mode network was originally thought to be a sort of autopilot for the brain when it was at rest and shown only to be active when someone is not engaged in externally directed thinking.