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How does the brain store narratives?

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Audrey Coble, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

bookB.A. from University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

bookM.A. from City University of New York

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What’s important to keep in mind about the human brain is that, despite its complexity, it can only effectively handle little bits of information at a time. The complexity of a human brain is astounding—but its greatest strength is not actually storing information, it’s filtering incoming information and stimuli so that it can only process and save the important things. (This is also the root of the controversy around eyewitness testimony.)

Thus, a general rule when discussing the way that brains dissect and store information is that—in the great majority of cases—in order to be stored away, the incoming information must first be broken down into “bite-sized” pieces.

Looking at the way the brain stores a narrative is no different. Basically, when the brain encounters a narrative, it sends the sensory input to several different regions of the brain to be broken up into smaller audio-visual segments of various lengths. The lengths can vary depending on the type of information that’s being processed and how much “brainpower” it requires to parse.

Baldassano et al. found that these “chunks vary substantially in length, in a hierarchy that runs up from a few milliseconds in parts of the brain tied closely to sensory input to hundreds of seconds in parts of the brain where higher-order thinking takes place” (qtd. in Hotchkiss, 2017).

Once these different chunks are finished processing in the brain, they can then be reassembled in narrative order and filed away in long-term storage.

As Baldassano et al. (2017) demonstrate in the attached articles, our understanding of the way brains naturally separate and store information is becoming more sophisticated due to the range of technology available. Instead of relying on subjects to report the way that they perceive information being “chunked” in their own heads while they’re processing narratives, researchers can instead look directly at the brain and see the processes happening in real time—thus giving us more accurate data!

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