Understanding movies and stories requires maintaining a high-level situation model that abstracts away from perceptual details to describe the location, characters, actions, and causal relationships of the currently unfolding event. These models are built not only from information present in the current narrative, but also from prior knowledge about schematic event scripts, which describe typical event sequences encountered throughout a lifetime. We analyzed fMRI data from 44 human subjects (male and female) presented with 16 three-minute stories, consisting of four schematic events drawn from two different scripts (eating at a restaurant or going through the airport). Aside from this shared script structure, the stories varied widely in terms of their characters and storylines, and were presented in two highly dissimilar formats (audiovisual clips or spoken narration). One group was presented with the stories in an intact temporal sequence, while a separate control group was presented with the same events in scrambled order. Regions including the posterior medial cortex, medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and superior frontal gyrus exhibited schematic event patterns that generalized across stories, subjects, and modalities. Patterns in mPFC were also sensitive to overall script structure, with temporally scrambled events evoking weaker schematic representations. Using a Hidden Markov Model, patterns in these regions predicted the script (restaurant vs airport) of unlabeled data with high accuracy and were used to temporally align multiple stories with a shared script. These results extend work on the perception of controlled, artificial schemas in human and animal experiments to naturalistic perception of complex narratives.
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