Some months back the New York Time Sunday Review featured a fascinating article by Annie Murphy Paul about studies on the human brain when people are reading fiction. The studies seem to confirm what I have long believed, the experience of reading good fiction acts on the brain in much the same way as having good experiences in one’s daily life. Good fiction, especially fiction rich in sensory description, is good for the brain.
The studies are the result of brain scans done while people are reading and measure brain activity while the subjects are immersed in a story. Brain activity is recorded, measured, and analyzed and show some fascinating results. For one thing the brain’s pleasure centers react positively to evocative sense words: lavender, cinnamon, vanilla. Just reading the word gives the brain a little zing much like an actual encounter with those fragrances would.
The brain also responds to evocative adjectives like “a velvety voice”, “leathery hands” but does not respond to passive ones like “pleasant voice” or “strong hands”. This is something I have long noticed in my own reading and try to be mindful of when I write. The brain gets bored by overused phrases and skips over them but is stimulated by fresh descriptions and registers pleasure when they are encountered.
Even more fascinating is the finding that the brain responds to descriptions of activity with visceral reactions. I thought this was particularly interesting because I recently had an experience of it. I was reading Andre Jute’s wonderful Iditarod and there were a couple of times, after reading particularly intense chapters, that I literally felt exhausted. One involved an attack by a bull moose on a musher and her dogs. In order to protect her dogs, the musher took off running away from them so the moose would follow her and leave the dogs alone. The description of the enormous moose bearing down on her as she tried to run through the frozen, icy landscape wore me out. Now I know why.
But the most intriguing thing the article offered was how reading novels effects the reader’s “theory of mind.” Theory of mind is the term scientists give to the ability of one’s brain to scan, interpret and evaluate the intentions and motives of other people. In all our interpersonal interactions we are constantly assessing what is going on with the people we encounter. Now the evidence shows that people who read fiction widely and experience the interaction between characters in stories are better able to understand, evaluate, and interpret their own interactions in real life.
This makes a lot of sense. I’ve often said that fiction tells the truth unencumbered by the facts and the studies on fiction reading and theory of mind seem to bear that out. Non-fiction lets the reader experience only what actually happened in a specific incident. Novels provide us with archetypal interactions that can be adapted and adjusted to serve other situations.
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.
Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
All of this encourages me to continue to be more mindful of the words I use when I write. And to keep on reading novels.