Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fiction and the Brain

by Donna K. Weaver

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times on March 17th entitled Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul. It's not a long article, and I would strongly encourage you to go and read it in its entirety.

I've always loved fiction. I can read nonfiction, but it doesn't generally have the same draw for me that fiction does.

Perhaps it has to do with the writing. Nonfiction, if not handled well, can end up reading like a textbook. And unless you're Hermione Granger, you probably don't read textbooks for leisure. People who write textbooks may be very gifted in their fields, but that doesn't mean they're good writers.

But I digress. This isn't meant to be a diss on nonfiction or even textbooks. It's about fiction, which is frequently treated like the poor orphaned child who, like Oliver Twist, pleads, "Please, Sir, I want some more."

Some more what?

Some more credibility. Some recognition that people who like to read fiction aren't merely wasting their time, escaping from the real world. That fiction is junk food for the brain.

So, I found Ms. Paul's article particularly refreshing. 
Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life . . . 
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. 
. . . 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. 

I would also suggest that what they're finding out about fiction and its power to influence the minds of its reader is profound. Note that I used the word power, power to influence. Influence for what?

What kinds of underlying messages do your stories bring to your readers?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's good news for fiction!
The closest mine come to an underlying message is the power of friendship.

Sarah Pearson said...

I suppose mine are all about being careful who you trust!

Belle said...

This was very interesting. I have learned some wonderful things about life and the world through fiction.

Suzie F. said...

Great article, Donna.

I never really thought, until you asked, what underlying message I bring to my reader - that would be, staying true to oneself.

farawayeyes said...

Underlying messages...

Just came home from 'The Hunger Games' the movie. Rick, who hasn't read the books, found the whole thing very disturbing (thank you very much). I found it all disturbing - the books, the movie and particularly the reactions of the public in general.

So Rick asks,"What is Ms. Collin's underlying message here? Is she truly touting the political implications, or is it just a successful formula to draw in the YA crows and make a lot of money?"

Interesting and disturbing questions Ricky. The good and evil of fiction.

Jeremy Bates said...

I like reading both fiction and non-fiction; however, I agree that some of the latter can be boring, thus easy to put down.

Good fiction, on the other hand, compels the reader to turn the pages as fast as he/she can read them.

At one point in history, and correct me if I m errant here, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) of the medieval times frowned on fiction because they believed it was a form of lying.

Stephanie Black said...

It's fascinating how we react to fiction as though it were real even thought intellectually, we know it's not! I've always loved stories.

Kimberlee Turley said...

I have definitely read several badly written textbooks for college, and a few that I enjoyed almost as much as a novel.

Very cool fact about the brain. I'm going to bring that article to my next book club.

Peaches Ledwidge said...

Reading some fiction and non- fiction writing can be unrewarding.

Nevertheless, a good article, especially for writers. It's an interesting observation and I understand how that can work when reading something that pulls you right in and you forget that it's not even real.

Emily R. King said...

I'm going to sit my husband down and make him read this. He reads strictly nonfiction (yawn). Yes, we will talk.

Great research, Donna! Thanks for sharing.

Laura Pauling said...

I believe it. When I read The Marbury Lens I could read it before I went to bed because it would take 45 minutes for my heartrate to slow down!

Jenny S. Morris said...

This is great news. I always knew that I loved Fiction for a reason.

David P. King said...

Then the notion of a life-changing book is perfectly within its bounds. Fascinating study. Great fiction always gives my brain a tingle. Must be a sign of a stimulated brain. :)

Ellie Garratt said...

Fascinating article and post. I hope my fiction will make readers aware of the power of friendship, and fighting evil no matter what the odds.

Pat Hatt said...

About time they are finding it out. Mine I suppose it be a family aspect to it and trust, if there are any under lying issues..haha