The Narrator Project

Story telling and engaging with stories is probably the most unique human behaviour that exists. How do people get involved in stories? How do they picture characters and events? What makes people get lost in stories and experience intense emotions and create personal memories of fictional worlds? In the Narrator Project we are looking at how people differ in how they engage in stories -either fiction or other people’s stories- and how this affects the relationships and interactions between people. This is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Buddhika Bellana ( and me to explore behaviour and brain dynamics of aesthetic experiences, social dynamics, event cognition, memory, and language.

Language and meaning in context

While we know a lot about how the brain processes words or sentences, we understand surprisingly little about how the brain deals with longer segments of verbal information like stories or conversations. And how does the situational context affect how information is processed? How do task demands influence comprehension? Does it matter who communicates information for what we perceive as relevant? I am interested in how our brains create rich, vivid, and multimodal mental ‘representations’ about people, events, or environments from reading or listening to stories and the social factors (e.g. speaker identity or group membership) that influence how humans attend to verbal information. My goal is to understand a) social factors that affect communication and persuasion success in different contexts, and b) how different ‘engagement mode settings’ influence how the language system in the brain interacts with other cognitive systems like episodic memory and social cognition. I use a wide range of research methods including functional (connectivity) MRI, (large scale) behavioral experiments with healthy young and older people as well as patients with brain damage, semantic network modeling, and meta-analyses of behavioral and functional neuroimaging data. I am a supporter of open science and try to preregister all my studies, publish as much data and code as possible, and upload preprints of my manuscripts. You can find information about individual projects on on my Open Science profile.

The two aspects I focused most on in my current recent research are:

How does person identity or appearance affect interaction?

We know that the appearance of people does not only affect how we perceive them, but also how we relate to and communicate with them. Beautiful people are often treated with preference while people whose appearance deviates from the norm are often associated with unfavorable stereotypes and treated worse than their more attractive peers. While it has been established that stereotypes for people who belong to one or more stigmatized groups exist, it is not clear how these affect cognition and communication when people engage with each other. I am investigating how stigma affects social interaction, particularly verbal communication, and potential applications for overcoming social bias. I am using behavioral experiments, functional neuroimaging, and semantic network modeling (with Yoed Kenett) to answer these questions.

At the moment, I am working on several projects related to racial and weight related biases in professional settings and health care provision.

The role of perspective taking in everyday cognition

Whether we remember the past, imagine situations, or read a map, perspective is a crucial feature in how we relate to the world. People seem to use both 1st person (actor’s perspective) and 3rd person (observer’s perspective) effectively but at the same time show great variation as to which perspective they seem to prefer. Which factors influence whether we ¬†use one or the other strategy and in which situations? Are some of us better in one perspective than the other? What strategy is most efficient in specific problem solving (e.g. navigating through a city based on maps or verbal route descriptions)? Can patients with compromised neural function compensate via an alternative strategy? I am trying to answer such questions mainly in the context of language comprehension with functional neuroimaging and behavioral experiments with healthy and patient populations (with Stacey Humphries and Emily Coderre).

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