RESEARCH

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I am a neuroscientist researching how narratives dynamically engage audiences.

 

I combine techniques from neuroscience, communication, and computer science to explain how narratives motivate our attention and elicit positive emotional experiences. This includes investigating how messages are dynamically processed and represented in the brain to how they inspire action. I believe this approach, which emphasizes narratives as powerful tools for uniting diverse audiences, will help us understand how narratives dynamically evoke and regulate positive emotional experiences and well-being.

Keywords

Communication neuroscience, narratives, fMRI, audiences, affect & attention

Here is a short video about my work (2018)

 
 

RESEARCH MOTIVATION

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How do we successfully communicate one message to many people?

This question lies at the heart of communication research, as nicely stated by a dominant influence in communication science, Claude Shannon (A Mathematical Theory of Communication, 1948).

“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately the message selected at another point.”

Over 70 years later, this remains a fundamental problem in human communication- one that feels increasingly salient as our mass communication technologies rapidly proliferate. Information is everywhere. What can we do to ensure the important messages rise above the noise? How can we use messages to help increase our well-being and create positive social connection?

Here's how I'm tackling the problem:

Narratives are powerful tools for engaging large audiences. They elicit strong emotional and cognitive responses that motivate behavior and connect us socially. Consider Game of Thrones. Despite an eclectic media market with more original content than ever before, the season 8 premiere pulled in 17 million viewers plus an estimated 54 million pirated views in a 24-hour period (Clark, 2019). This is just one example of a story that has become the common ground for a large, disparate audience that continues to share their thoughts and feelings with friends and develop active communities.

To learn how messages can successfully engage an audience, narratives present a perfect experimental model. Narratives unlock a host of dynamic affective and cognitive processes that keep us invested in the story. I believe the ability of narratives to drive motivated attention is key to explaining the successful communication of messages. Furthermore, they allow us to study complex brain function as it occurs in everyday life in response to our communication-driven world.


CENTRAL TENETS OF MY RESEARCH APPROACH

The human brain is the biological mediator between a message and its effects.

Interdisciplinary pioneers have opened the doors for the integration of neuroscientific methods into communication science (Falk et al., 2015; Schmälzle et al., 2015; Weber et al., 2008). Social and affective neuroscience approaches allow us to unlock the “black box” of the brain as a critical component of the human information processing system.


Time is an essential variable to studying the message reception process.

Stories evolve through exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution- and so too do our responses! Although we can summarize our thoughts at the end of a film, this does not capture how the story made us laugh, cry, or jump out of our seats. To do that, we need to measure responses over time.


Message content matters.

Just as it is essential to study audience biology to understand how we respond to messages, it is just as important to study the messages that drive those responses. Developments in computer science and computational methods give us a clear path forward to develop the content analytic methods that are ingrained in the field of communication. Already, we can leverage new tools to efficiently and reliably assess the complexities of lower-order narrative content from objects on screen to the music that moves us (Grall & Schmälzle, 2018).


Messages that represent what we see in our daily lives matter.

I want to study the communication process from message to audience in a way that reflects what happens in our everyday life (naturalistic contexts). I strive for external validity, and new developments in methods and analyses across computer science and neuroscience make this an increasingly achievable goal (Hasson et al., 2004; McNamara et al., 2017).


Science makes progress through transparency.

I am a strong advocate of open science practices, and I have adopted several practices to maximize the replicability and reproducibility (and therefore quality) of my work. All current projects have open data and code in development on Github with the aid of Jupyter Notebooks, and many have accompanying pre-registrations. I am committed to upholding these practices as an essential part of the research process.


 

CURRENT PROJECTS

 
 

Audience brain dynamics in response to suspenseful narratives

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Media psychology is rich in theory explaining why narratives can invoke strong experiences of suspense in audiences, but there is a lack of explanation for how suspense develops in the brains of audiences over time. Suspense represents a unique blend of affective and cognitive processes (Pessoa, 2008). As the audience becomes aware of a looming threat to a beloved protagonist, the tension rises and keeps us predicting, “What’s going to happen next?” What are the dynamic brain processes that give rise to the experience of suspense in an audience over time? We are currently exploring the brain mechanisms that contribute to this rich, affective experience that keeps eyes locked on-screen to the very end.

Inspiration and the power of positive affect in narratives

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Think back to the last time you looked out across a vast landscape or heard a swelling melody from an orchestra. How did you feel? These are two commonly reported elicitors of inspiration, an experience that’s often discussed as a burst of transcendent feeling that makes us want to be better people and do good things. However, it’s a difficult thing to study. Although it’s fairly easy to get a strong aversive response from someone (try a picture of blood, that usually works), it’s very difficult to reliably inspire even a comparatively homogenous audience. We take on the challenge with our ongoing investigation of audience responses to inspirational stories to explain the biological underpinnings of this positive affective experience, which motivates personal growth and altruism.


 

TOOLBOX

 

Vertical Integration from Message to Brains

My career has taken me from media production and creative directing, to training in quantitative communication theory and methods, to years of dedicated study of cutting-edge neuroscientific methods and analysis. This background gives me a unique advantage to studying the communication process from story creation to reception in the brain to long-term behavioral effects.

A brief summary on tools

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I am proficient in Python for experimental design and analysis, with current emphasis on developing dynamic inter-subject correlation (ISC) analyses for fMRI data. I have a strong history and training in behavioral experimental design, questionnaire design, and content analysis (both traditional and computational) using media stimuli, as aided by my skills in video and photo editing (favoring Adobe Premiere and Photoshop). I am familiar with a wide range of tools to facilitate collaboration and open science including Github, Open Science Framework, Jupyter Notebooks, and As Predicted.

I love using my skills as an illustrator for figure design and data visualization. I believe that being able to effectively communicate my research is crucial to advancing the field of media neuroscience.

I am currently learning computational techniques for multimodal sentiment analysis and natural language processing.