Wednesday, March 21, 2012

This Is Your Brain On Fiction

On Futurama, brains especially love Jane Austen!
Have you ever heard the term "reading is fundamental"? Well, turns out, reading fiction may be more fundamental than anything else.

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating article about the effect that reading fiction has on your brain. Brains are wild, strange organs and it turns out that a good old fiction novel is enough to light it up light a Christmas tree. The next time someone gives you the side eye for reading a trashy novel, let them know it's good for your brain!

According to the article, new research shows what happens when our brains read a detailed description or grapple with a metaphor. The research suggests that reading stories change the way our brains work and can even affect our behavior in real life!

Essentially, your brain will process reading the word "mint" differently than the word "table". Why? The word "mint" stimulates parts in your brain that process not just words, but also smell and taste. The word "rough" lights up the part of your brain that processes touch. When these words are used in fiction, it makes your brain work harder. Writing "a delicious cup of rich chai tea, sprinkled with cinnamon" instead of "a cup of tea" isn't just better writing, it's better braining! Are you imagining the taste of chai tea now? You can thank your brain and the way it just processed "chai" for your sudden craving.

Brains, despite being a masterful organ, can also be shockingly simple. The article goes on to describe how your brain can't tell the difference between the memory of something that happened to you and something you're reading, which is why fiction can sometimes seem so lifelike. Fiction let's us become other people and have other experiences, and our brains can't tell the difference. This, I think, makes fiction incredibly powerful. Because of this, the brain treats actions and characters in fiction as real things. This doubles the impact a book can have on you. The death of a character doesn't make you cry because it's sad, for example, the brain thinks a real person has died!

Scientists have reported that people who frequently read fiction novels are better able to understand people, their motivations, and empathize with them. They are more able to see things from another's perspective. Fiction acts as a mental dojo where we can hone our social skills, develop empathy and better react to those around us.

I'm not going to say reading books makes you a better person but, well, it's food for thought!
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  1. So I'm not sneak reading at work - I'm doing mental calisthenics the better to facilitate interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Eh? Eh? It could work.

  2. I love the idea that reading is my "Mental Dojo"! I'm like a mental ninja!!

    A few years ago, I was reading a really great book and it felt like I was in the book, watching the characters interact or feeling the weather changes so much that when someone interrupted me, I felt like I thudded back into reality. It was one of my favorite reading experiences even now.

    1. Ooooh, I'm intrigued: What was the book?

    2. It was the Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry. It's like a noir detective story that completely screws with your head by the end of it. It took me a few tries to get into it but once I did, I zoomed through it. I highly recommend.