Shared understanding of narratives is correlated with shared neural responses

Mai Nguyen, Tamara Vanderwal, Uri Hasson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


Humans have a striking ability to infer meaning from even the sparsest and most abstract forms of narratives. At the same time, flexibility in the form of a narrative is matched by inherent ambiguity in its interpretation. How does the brain represent subtle, idiosyncratic differences in the interpretation of abstract and ambiguous narratives? In this fMRI study, subjects were scanned either watching a novel 7-min animation depicting a complex narrative through the movement of geometric shapes, or listening to a narration of the animation's social story. Using an intersubject representational similarity analysis that compared interpretation similarity and neural similarity across subjects, we found that the more similar two people's interpretations of the abstract shapes animation were, the more similar were their neural responses in regions of the default mode network (DMN) and fronto-parietal network. Moreover, these shared responses were modality invariant: the shapes movie and the verbal interpretation of the movie elicited shared responses in linguistic areas and a subset of the DMN when subjects shared interpretations. Together, these results suggest a network of high-level regions that are not only sensitive to subtle individual differences in narrative interpretation during naturalistic conditions, but also resilient to large differences in the modality of the narrative.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-170
Number of pages10
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Cross-modal
  • Individual differences
  • Inter-subject correlation
  • Naturalistic
  • fMRI


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