Hopkins researchers launch writing contest to learn about how the brain processes stories

From the day the first primitive human clambered up a tree while fleeing a pack of ravenous wolves — and later grunted out the details of their narrow escape to cave dwellers around a campfire — the human brain appears to have been hard-wired to process and retain stories.

Now, a research team at the Johns Hopkins University is asking for the public’s help in mapping the areas of the brain that kick into high gear every time we read a new Stephen King novel or see a “Deadpool” sequel, or watch reruns of “Doctor Who.”

It turns out that telling and listening to tales isn’t just fun — it’s a key survival strategy.

“Understanding stories is part of the fundamental anatomy of the brain,” said Janice Chen, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, “and it’s a very robust brain system that you find in everyone.”

Chen said different regions of the brain tune into characters or location, while others are devoted to what could be described as the plot.

“If you think about it, your life is made up of a series of events. And each one of those events is a story,” she said.

But Chen doesn’t study literature. She studies how neural systems support memory. And she’s especially interested in a group of high-level brain regions, known as the “default mode network,” that appear to be involved in episodic memories, or those that spring from personal experience.

Many of her experiments involve putting subjects into an “fMRI” — a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine  — and recording their brain activity as they read a book, watch a movie or talk about an episode of a favorite TV show.

Chen thought members of the public might enjoy helping to design her team’s research studies. How often does the average Baltimorean get a chance to don an imaginary white lab coat, to become Doctor You?

So she reached out to her colleague, Dora Malech, an associate professor in Hopkins’ Writing Seminars and editor in chief of The Hopkins Review literary journal, and asked for her help in devising a short story contest.

The fMRI Writing Prize contest, which runs through July 31, is for a piece of original, unpublished “flash fiction” or a very short story of between about 500 and 1,500 words. It is open to high school students and adults who live, work or study in Baltimore.

“We thought it would be an accessible way to engage the public in science experiments taking place at Hopkins,” Malech said. “There are overlapping questions about what makes enduring art and how art affects memory.”

Two winners — one aged 14 to 18, and one adult — will be selected to receive a $500 prize based on standard literary criteria as well as whether their work contains attributes useful to the researchers.

Chen, for instance, is interested in stories that have unusual narrative structures instead of unfolding chronologically. Sammy Tavasoli, who is studying for her doctorate in brain sciences, is intrigued by memories of emotional events, while scientist …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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