“Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”
That’s the takeaway from a great column in the New York Times which summarizes current neuroscience research into the effects of reading, and fiction, on the brain. It’s fascinating stuff, going into how the brain actually seems to experience sensations and actions that are read in much the same way that it experiences actual sensations and actions. This means, within your mind, as you read fiction you are not simply imagining what’s happening on the page, you are literally experiencing it on a deep level. And it can help you develop more fully as a person.
None of this will come as much of a surprise to anyone who already appreciates the power of story, or its essential place in our psyches, nor to anyone familiar with the effects of visualization exercises on physical activities like sports, in which a certain technique can be practiced in the mind with measurable improvement in the actual activity. But it certainly is a reinforcement of our need for narrative as a tool for not only adding enjoyment to our lives, but for deepening them.
There’s are reasons that people who read tend to be the people most worth knowing, and it’s not just that they’re better educated (though that is overwhelmingly true).
Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.
Fascinating stuff, and that’s just a taste. You can (and should; I’m always amazed at how few people actually click through to see a recommended piece) read the rest here.
And if you haven’t seen it yet, and would like some Oscar-winning, funny, moving, bookish whimsy, check out the marvelous video I link to here.