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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Navigating by Narratives: Cognitive Maps Encode Engagement with Physical and Fictional Worlds


What can stories teach us about the real world? How can stories change our behavior? From research on cognitive maps, we know that hippocampal neurons form maps of physical space and time. Here, we propose that the same neural processes underlie engagement with fictional stories: during story processing we create cognitive maps of various domains—spatial, social, moral, etc.—that we can later use for real-world navigation. This perspective can also inspire new methodological tools for assessing story processing, and we give an example showing how a story can be modeled as paths taken on a cognitive map. In summary, we see stories as affording paths that guide our navigation through multiple dimensions of life, which raises the implication that the function of stories, including their moral content, is not only to be understood at the level of abstract and linguistically coherent propositions, but at the fundamental level of navigation.

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