Does Reading Fiction Affect Your Brain?

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Annie Murphy Paul raised the question earlier this year with her article: Your Brain on Fiction posted in the New York Times Sunday Review. As readers and writers, we need to know the answers to the questions raised by her article.

In this day of instant gratification, with our children and grands fixated on computer games and other digital distractions, is reading dead?

According to Neuroscience’s findings on how reading affects the brain, perhaps we should encourage the old-fashioned virtue of reading stories.

Or should we?

For further research, I ordered first one book and then another.

Keith Oatley’s Such Stuff as DreamsBrian Boyd’s On the Origin of Story Tilottama Rajan’s The Supplement of ReadingLisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction Lewis Mehl-Madrona, D.D., Ph.D.’s Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story

To read Keith Oatley’s blog go here.

While waiting for the books to arrive, I printed out 50 pages of web articles on the subject. I searched the brain’s known language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Fascinating stuff for me, it brought back memories of pouring over Dad’s medical books as a child.

It was worth it. Now to compress all this information into a 500-word blog post.

Can you say brain overload?
#1. Does reading fiction affect the brain differently than reading non-fiction?

#2. If so, is reading fiction . . . safe?

#3. Will reading fiction turn men into sissies?

Neuroscience shows the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area of our brain affect how the mind interprets written words. Other parts of our brains are involved as well.

No wonder the experience of reading can feel so alive. (At least for those of us who love novels.)

While words describing smells like “apple pie” or “vanilla” or “vomit,” cause a response from Broca and Wernike, the language-processing areas of our brains, these words also affect the parts that process smells and scents.

Anne describes using brain scans to reveal how stories stimulate the brain and can even change how we act in life. I’ve condensed and paraphrased her content.

Volunteers read while scientists scanned their brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. As the readers looked at the words cologne, bacon, and eggs, their primary olfactory cortex lit up. The words describing objects such as car, or building, left this part of the brain dark.

Motion words activated sections of the brain other than those for language processing. Participants read sentences like “Gritting his teeth, he ran after her” and “He grabbed her forearm.” Interestingly enough, these scans showed stimulation in the part of the brain which coordinates body movements. When the action described was arm-related, the stimulation was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex and in another part when the action concerned the leg.

Fiction, in the form of a novel, examines the social and emotional world of mankind through created characters. We have documented how the brain responds to words of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing.

While we read, our brains treat the interactions among fictional characters the same as if we, or someone in our real life, has experienced them.

Which leads us to the next question, “Is reading fiction . . . safe?” What are your thoughts? I will discuss the answers in my next post.

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19 thoughts on “Does Reading Fiction Affect Your Brain?

  1. What an interesting research study!!

    All I can say is…I KNEW IT!!!!!

    I knew that fiction provided a real experience. It was impossible to believe that reading doesn’t provide a feeling of being there.

    Is it bad for you?

    Only because fiction can be so much cooler than reality. :)

    • Actually science is proving that reading fiction helps us with social interaction in the real world as well. Isn’t that exciting news for bookworms like you and me!

  2. Oooh, interesting!! I’ve been reading fiction since I was in kindergarten, seriously, and I’m pretty sure it’s made me the absent-minded person I am today. LOL I adore fiction and actually don’t read much non-fiction. Cool article. Thanks!

  3. Fascinating post, Sharon! I’d heard some news about this study but your assessment is so clear and concise – thank you for that. :-)

    I’m not at all surprised that our brains engage so intimately in the written word. That’s part of why people love to read, because we live vicariously in the story world the author has invited us into. I wonder what they would do with a brain study of those who ride on roller coasters? It’s kind of similar in that riders are wanting to experience the “danger” of height at high speeds while turning and twisting, but it’s controlled. Nearly always safe – except for the very rare accident. Books, on the other hand, might introduce images into our brain that are dangerous, but we’re 100% safe.

    So. . . yes, reading fiction is safe, but evidently it can enrich our experience more deeply than we realized. That’s why it’s so important to guard what we read!

    • And we can learn from how the character solves the problem. We can learn that problems can be solved by ordinary people. People like you. People like me.

  4. Is reading fiction safe? Are you kidding me?

    Fiction reading has sucked me into worlds otherwise unknown to man and thrown me into dangerous situations that have never even existed!

    Once I open a book and start reading the first page, there is no way of knowing where I might end up or how long I’ll be gone.

    And, although I may appear to be simply sitting in a chair or reclining in bed, my view of the world will be forever changed from what it was prior to opening that book.

    No, there is nothing safe about reading! Opening a book is a dangerous thing to do.

    But it can also be a great adventure! :-)

  5. Great post, Sharon. It makes complete sense, in my opinion. This is why we writers are supposed to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ readers things. This helps me keep my writing in perspective. If I read a story that says something like “She ate a piece of bacon for breakfast.” that’s fine and I move on. But if I read a sentence like “Bacon sizzled on the stove, its enticing aroma wafting throughout the house.” You can be assured I’m going to be finding me some bacon to fry up.

    With that said, though, this is one reason I’m very careful about the books I read. I can’t read a scary slasher book and be expected to go to bed in the next few days. 😃

    • Thanks for your wise comment. I believe we need to read to challenge us, to make us stronger. A slasher thriller does not do that for me.

  6. Fiction is very important for the mind–especially for the young mind. I firmly believe quality fiction that examines iife’s more challenging social and emotional situations can be a great benefit to children. Again, I must stress: quality fiction. I don’t mind if the themes are intense, so long as the material addresses those themes well. Reading is very good for the brain, which makes it even more sad to know the numbers of adult readers, outside of college, are not very high (from what I’ve seen of the statistics).

  7. Pingback: Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, June 22, 2012 « cochisewriters

  8. This is fascinating stuff, Sharon – how the brain registers words and their neurophysical effects. As far as being safe to read fiction, I think as long as you don’t try to replicate the intense stories in real life, it’s okay to experience something in the imagination, but I’m no scientist, so I’ll wait for those folks to tell me how much it can actually change my behavior. I do know that there are some authors I can’t read, because their graphic violence literally turns my stomach. How powerful are the words we read!

  9. excellent post. i agree reading affects, or really – helps, the brain. i’m writing a book on Aesthetics, and this is up my alley. actually, not only was your post helpful, but you’ve given me more good reading to do. thnx

  10. I love this post! It’s a great testimony to the mind-body-Spirit connection. Can you imagine how much reading the Bible soothes your body and soul if reading other material affects you this way? They should do a study comparing physiologic responses and brain areas affected on functional MRI when the Bible vs. other material is read.

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