Thursday, February 26, 2015

Your Brain on Fiction

A writer friend on a mailing list linked to an article called Your Brain on Fiction, which talks about how the brain responds when one is reading fiction.

It seems that reading vivid adjectives or active verbs stimulates the same parts of your brain that activate when you're actually experiencing the adjective or doing the verb. For example:

Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark.

This also works with social interactions. Reading about characters going through emotional experiences and relationships makes readers more able to understand other people, empathize with them, and navigate social situations.

It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television. (Dr. Mar has conjectured that because children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, they may experience more “parent-children conversations about mental states” when it comes to films.)

Although that last bit made me wonder. It sounds weird that kids would pick up more about social interaction from movies than from television, and I don't really buy the "going to the movies with parents" thing. When a little kid is really into a TV show, they're going to want to talk about it, whether or not Mom or Dad knows who all Spongebob's friends are. And what about watching movies on TV? Maybe they meant to differentiate between watching television and going to a movie theater, rather than between TV shows and movies. It still sounds iffy; I'd have liked to get more info on that.

Still, this is pretty cool. Definitely click through and read the whole thing.


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