Skip to content

#ICA20 Top Paper Profile – Grall, Eden, & Schmälzle

Clare Grall – First Author

The Communication Science and Biology (CSaB) Interest Group awarded four teams top papers for #ICA20. These full-length papers were selected based on a blinded peer review process. Each paper received exceptionally high scores from three independent reviewers, and all three reviewers recommended accepting the submission. These papers truly reflect the outstanding scholarship in CSaB, and we are pleased to say that all top papers this year feature a trainee as first author. Below, we briefly profile a top paper from Grall, Eden, and Schmälzle. Be sure to check out their presentation at #ICA20!

CSaB: In a few short sentences, what is your study about?

Grall et al.: Narratives have the ability to inspire audiences to increase well-being or take on new behaviors. But what happens in the brains of inspired listeners, and how do brain responses differ when listening to inspirational narratives compared to other messages? To find out, we conducted an experiment in which participants listened to a series of inspirational stories, as well as non-inspirational control stories, while undergoing fMRI.

CSaB: How did you come up with the idea for this line of research?

Grall et al.: It developed out of two professors seeing the connection between their research interests. A core focus of Dr. Schmälzle’s research is investigating the neural mechanisms underlying how audiences become intrinsically motivated to keep paying attention to a message. Dr. Eden’s research on entertainment media grew from early training in experimental psychology on emotional human experiences, including inspiration. If we draw their research interests as a Venn diagram, this project—and my line of work—represent the overlap. A multimethodological study of inspirational narratives presents fertile ground for understanding a host of communication questions about how narratives engage audiences.

CSaB: What did you discover?

Grall et al.: Inspirational stories include a wealth of emotional and motivationally-relevant content that facilitates their ability to tap into the affective and motivational systems that are shared across individuals. In this way, these stories can collectively engage audiences and align audience brain function over time. Using intersubject correlation analysis, which exposes where and to what extent a message has aligned the brain function of an audience, our data show that inspirational stories lead to strongly correlated responses across the cortex and especially in the temporoparietal junction, precuneus, posterior cingulate, and anterior cingulate. In the context of the body of similar evidence collected thus far, these findings further implicate a common, core brain network recruited to process inspirational narratives.

CSaB: What are the implications of your research?

Grall et al.: Consider the moments in your life when you heard someone’s story and it “struck a chord” within you or the story “resonated.” Inspirational narratives, rich in social and emotional information, have this ability to resonate with whole audiences despite the physical and social distance between individuals. Our study presents a research paradigm in which we can elucidate both the content features that facilitate a narrative’s ability to resonate with an audience and also the brain function that is shared across audiences to facilitate this emotional experience.
To help people understand how we combined methods and techniques from media psychology and neuroscience, here is a figure of our research procedure and analysis. A) While scanning with fMRI, participants listened to four inspirational stories, one story played in reverse, and one story devoid of any social or emotional content (the recitation of a VCR manual) in pseudo-randomized order. For each story, participants first listened with their eyes closed for 3 minutes, submitted a single-item rating of the story’s importance, then imagined the story for 20 seconds before talking aloud for 30 seconds about how the story made them feel (analysis of the recall and talk-aloud data are not presented in this conference submission). B) Inter-subject (ISC) analysis was used to assess whether the personal, inspirational stories aligned the regional brain responses of participants more than the reversed speech or VCR text. C) Broad representation of the regions of interest: 1 = temporoparietal junction, 2 = auditory cortex, 3 = precuneus, 4 = posterior cingulate cortex, 5 = anterior cingulate cortex, 6 = medial prefrontal cortex.

CSaB: How can or how does CSaB help you as a scientist?

Grall et al.: Every time I tweet about a paper, a technical problem, or a question about life in academia, the CSaB community is the first to respond. It may seem silly, but my academic Twitter network has been crucial to my interdisciplinary science training. I found my first job post-PhD on academic Twitter. I’m very thankful for the CSaB network of scholars whose support for all facets of my career extend far beyond ICA.

CSaB: Did you use any open science practices? If so what ones, and is there an available link to your study’s OSF/GitHub?

Grall et al.: Absolutely! Our team works collaboratively using our NOM Lab Github ( and we make heavy use of Jupyter notebooks. All of our materials, scripts, and analyses are reproducible, and we make them public once the paper is published. This conference submission is from a project that’s still in development, but we will also have a Github repository associated with any future publication.

CSaB: Tell us more about the team!

Clare Grall, Ph.D. She/Her @claregrall
Allison Eden. Ph.D. She/Her @allison_eden
Ralf Schmälzle, Ph.D. He/Him

Grall, C., Eden, A., & Schmälzle, R. (2020, May). Personal stories inspire of audience brain responses. Paper accepted to the 70th Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association.

Skip to content