Reading Revs Up the Brain

Are you one of those people who watch violent movies with a hand spread across your face, fingers splayed for a quick check to see if the pummeling is over? Does every volatile action make you feel sick? Are you like me when reading? Laugh out loud or sob as a story unfolds. As tears flow down my face, my husband always says to me, “what is the matter with you, relax, it’s fiction, it’s a movie?” Or fill in the blank.

I just finished Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day.  Beautifully written but grim. Very grim. And more than likely mostly true, at least in the spirit of the storytelling.  I think I had a perpetual anxiety attack as I plowed through 700 pages, experiencing the cruelty of one character to another and the circumstances surrounding the anarchists and Boston police strike in the early twentieth century.  If you think we are behaving any differently toward our new immigrants as we did then or you wonder why enacting civil rights legislation was so slow in coming, I’d say it’s recommended reading.  But never mind that, I’ll try to stay on topic.

My youngest daughter is just like me.  She can’t read or even watch a comedy if someone is bullied or taunted.  It turns that it is not that we are empathetic people (though, in truth we are). Rather, there is scientific proof in our brains to explain what is happening to make us have physical engagement with what we are reading or seeing.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog.

Annie Murphy Paul wrote an op-ed called, Your Brain on Fiction.   She begins by saying that researchers have long known the brain interprets written words in its language regions.  But now, through a multitude of studies using MRIs, we are learning that words describing the senses affect the sensory brain regions. This means that when reading, the language processing centers are not the only parts of the brain lighting up.

Dr. Raymond Mar (York University, Canada) analyzed 86 such MRI studies and concluded that narrative provides an opportunity to engage the theory of mind. The brain actually has the capacity of to map other people’s intentions. Stories engage this by our identification with character’s “longings and frustrations…. their motives…and track their encounters.”

Examples: words like perfume and coffee elicit a sensory response; whereas, chair and key do not. When study subjects read something like kicking a ball or running away from an assailant, the motor sensors are engaged.

Ms Paul’s interpretation of this research is: “There is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells textures and movement as if the real thing, so it treats interactions among fictional characters as something real-life.” I think this means that the brain doesn’t really distinguish between reading something and experiencing it.

This interests me on a couple of levels.

I have always believed that reading fiction, really good fiction, gave me a window to the world intellectually, socially, and practically. They open your mind and take you to places that may be uncomfortable or out of reach. The truly forgettable books are the ones in which the authors don’t even try to use language well or involve the reader in layered response.

In my own writing, I physically experience the world I am creating.  I know it’s made up.  I know it’s me making it up. Alas, that doesn’t seem to matter.  When I was writing the scene in Standing on the Corner of Lost and Found, in which a Vietnam veteran with PTSD threatens one of the characters, I had heart flutters and sweaty palms. I know it’s alive only in my head and then on a one-dimensional piece of paper or computer screen, as the case may be.  Yet, if I write any scene of visceral conflict, my stomach does flip-flops and my heart rate speeds ahead.  This idea of brain engagement helps explain why this happens.

Double that if it’s a book I’m reading.

The other thing is this.  The writing mantra of ‘show not tell’ has a new dimension. These studies strengthen the case for the careful crafting of evocative prose. It is metaphor that has the greatest impact. If a book is to involve the reader on all fronts, it needs to be crafted to activate all sensors in the brain.  As Ms. Paul concludes: “reading great literature enlarges us and improves us. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”

So start a new book today and travel to a place you’ve never been. Go back to Lehane’s early twentieth century Boston or become the ballerina in Stalinist Russia in Kolotay’s Russian Winter.

Not only is your soul waiting.  So is your brain.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Revs Up the Brain

  1. That’s really interesting. I love what the brain is capable of in some people, how you can have such an intense experience of something that has never happened before is just amazing. What is also just as interesting in its own right, is that there are people who don’t experience any of these sorts of reactions to literature. Their brains don’t light up in nearly the same way to the same stimulus. The psychology student in me finds that fascinating. The reader in me feels terribly sorry for them. Great post!

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