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Your Brain on Fiction

March 18, 2012

A great article in the NYT this morning. Here is a salient excerpt,

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.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2012 1:01 pm

    For some reason, maybe the Canadian connection, or maybe the hint of melancholy in the article, this post reminded of me of this Canadian radio documentary: Say No To Happiness

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    March 18, 2012 1:28 pm

    There was also an article on novelists taking on the Haggadah, which you have previously written about.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/fashion/a-thoughtful-new-translation-of-the-haggadah.html?ref=books

  3. March 18, 2012 1:35 pm

    Yes, I mentioned that article in a follow-up post.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    March 18, 2012 6:01 pm

    And now I have revealed that I did not follow that link.

  5. March 19, 2012 1:52 pm

    Suzanne,
    This post reminded me of what Paul Tournier wrote in Le personnage et la personne:

    “Pour comprendre l’homme, il est aussi important de lire l’Iliade, l’Odyssée, l’Enéide, la Bhagavad-Gita, ou même les contes de Perrault, que des traités philosophie, de sociologie, de physiologie ou de psychologie.”

    (or, in Edwin Hudson’s English translation: “If we wish to understand man it is as important to read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Bhagavad-Gita, or even Grimm’s fairy-tales, as philosophical, sociological, physiological or psychological treatises.”)

    And Robert Coles confessed once in an interview: “Of course everything I come up with novelists have known beforehand.”

    As we know, both Tournier and Coles are physicians who study, if not the brain per se, the human pschye. Fiction played a large role in that study, and I’m sure it still does in legitimate ways.

  6. March 19, 2012 10:24 pm

    In my moral theology classes, we’ve emphasized that story/narrative is morally potent, and decidedly not morally neutral. The language used in the NY Times excerpt by scientists studying these things is consistent with how I (as a lifelong avid reader) feel that story influences me.

    I should dig up the essay I wrote on that topic and post it…

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    March 19, 2012 10:37 pm

    Thank you for your comments. Teachers use novels all the time to teach or even as a form of therapy. So many books that I read out loud to my kids, to students.

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