Agency and communication: is there a link?

In an effort to better understand how we communicate with each other, an MIT lead article published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience attempted to define the specific areas of the brain dedicated to storytelling; a “narrative hub” of the mind.

MIT researchers used fMRI scans to determine what would happen when participants were introduced to a simple narrative, such as “surgeon finds scissors inside of patient”, and then asked them to communicate it to someone else. Participants were given one of three mediums to express themselves (speech, mime or draw) and a short period of time to plan and execute their narrative while the machine mapped their brain activity.

The study found that a common group of areas was, in fact, being activated in the participants’ brains when communicating their narrative, predominantly involving the temporal lobe. The MIT paper concludes that brain activities within participants were “most likely rooted in character processing”, related to an agent’s “intentions, motivations, beliefs, emotions and actions”.

Agency appears to be a compelling theme within the paper, which indicates that in situations in which people were expected to focus on the action being described, they instead appeared to focus on the agent of the story. It suggests that narratives are, by nature, more focused on the agent than the events which occur around them.

Self-agency (one’s own agency) and external agency (agency belonging to those other than oneself) appear to differ within the study. A common activation of the meeting point between the temporal and parietal lobes (temporoparietal junction) could potentially represent its involvement in our understanding of our external agency.

This study also suggests that the temporoparietal junction’s role on agency has significance in how we understand the evolutionary origin of language as it could potentially be responsible for how we choose to express ourselves within all three means of communication represented within the experiment.

The discoveries and suggestions of these researchers could affect our understanding of ourselves as social beings. As we share our experiences through the same means as the participants, a greater awareness of our narrative hub ties directly to human nature.

If our sense of agency is so deeply rooted, not only within our language but also our very process of communication, then our experiences as agents become reliant on our ability to communicate them.

Our need to be social and to seek validation through our actions or others’ appreciation of them could be strongly inherent within our very being. These behavioural traits may simply exist as a means for us to maintain a sense of agency by obtaining approval from the observation of external agents.

While nurture is certain to play a role in an individual’s self-worth, scientific evidence regarding the tendencies of our mammalian brain is bound to help us realise what aspects are inherent in the human condition. Is validation, therefore, the tool we use to uphold our self-agency to a standard we ourselves create using external role-models?

The study appears to show a need for an agency-based understanding of narratives within the concerned areas of the brain. If we are to believe that our biology is wired to predetermine agent-based thinking rather than action-based thinking, validation could be considered to play a social role in upholding a system of reasoning and sharing experiences which comes naturally to all of us.

While it appears too early to say, the paper proposes future improvements to better determine the role of areas such as the temporoparietal junction in the evolutionary origin and inner workings of our sense of self as agents.

 

Image Credit: rawpixel via Pixabay

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