His recent book, Das narrative Gehirn: Was unsere Neuronen erzählen (The Narrative Brain: What Our Neurons Tell Us), is a fascinating mix of the humanities, cognitive sciences, and hard sciences. It received the Science Book of the Year Award for 2023 from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research. The book speaks to much of Dr. Breithaupt’s work in the Experimental Humanities Laboratory, a group of students and professionals that he established at IU.
Dr. Breithaupt first came to IU in 1996 as an assistant professor in Germanic studies. His work quickly grew beyond the walls of the department, branching into comparative literature, cognitive science, cultural studies, and more. “IU is interesting in the sense that it allows a lot of contact between the different fields,” said Breithaupt. “It gets artists and humanities scholars out of the silos of working alone on projects.”
And Breithaupt was far from alone. His work drew the attention of other IU professors and researchers, but also of undergraduate and graduate students. His trajectory for establishing the Experimental Humanities Laboratory came naturally: “I was sliding into this by my own interest, but also very happily by student collaboration, student advising.” Students would come to him with questions and research proposals and Dr. Breithaupt would sit down with them and discuss their ideas. He began to hear students call these brainstorming sessions ‘lab meetings’ and thus the Experimental Humanities Lab was born.
Twelve years after the lab’s inception, it is still largely student driven. As Breithaupt put it, “If there are students excited about a project, then we will do that project!” The group studies storytelling, social media, daydreaming, literature, and more, all tied together by the common thread of narrative. Why do we communicate through stories? What do stories do?
Much of the group’s research on the connection between stories and emotions served as inspiration for Breithaupt’s “The Narrative Brain.” “As far as we know, only human beings are able to communicate past events to others or make up events so that people who hear the account can co-experience it,” noted Breithaupt. It’s this ‘co-experience’ piece –the idea that the listener feels the same emotions as the storyteller– that most interests him. “Emotions are very central to stories. Stories are not just technical manuals or just witness reports. In most cases, why do we think in terms of stories? Because we like the emotional elements of them.”
This idea bears the title of ‘emotional reward theory.’ In short: “Stories promise emotions.” Breithaupt argues that we consume and create stories because we know that they will make us feel something, whether it be awe, satisfaction, surprise, or dozens of other emotions. Importantly, those emotions also serve as a sort of stop signal, telling us that the story is over and that we can ‘return’ to ourselves. We enjoy, for example, hearing of a friend’s dinner party mishap because we can co-experience their embarrassment and laughter with them. At the close of the story, we’ve gotten our emotional reward and can put distance between ourselves and the feeling. Thankfully, we aren’t stuck reliving their embarrassment forever.
Breithaupt has published extensively about this phenomenon, most notably in his two books about empathy. And that’s not a coincidence. “In a way I end with a book and come to a new question with it.” reflected Breithaupt. “The question of empathy led me to the question of co-experiencing, which has a lot to do with narratives.”