Is Reading Fiction . . . Safe?

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Stories have always stimulated our minds. Thousands of years before computers were dreamed of, people told stories and passed them down from generation to generation.

Our earliest record of fiction comes from the morality plays of the eleventh century. Typically, these allegorical dramas followed a story line where the antagonist tempts the protagonist to sin. And, much like our inspirational fiction of today, the protagonist finds peace, salvation, or hope, through the grace of God.

The belief in metamorphose is old. Today’s writers call this the character arc of the protagonist. The writer asks the reader to think and feel. With the suspension of disbelief, our minds reach out. As readers of well-written fiction, we think it could happen. Psychologically, the story becomes part of us. We realize we too can change.

With the origin of fiction, people thought literature could change and improve our actions. Today we turn the assertion into a question. If reading can change us, is reading fiction . . . safe?

As we learned last week, our brain doesn’t make a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Just as in dreams and memories, the same neurological regions are stimulated. (Have you ever had a child tell you about something horrible that happened last week and start crying as if it had just happened?)

In his book, Such Stuff as Dreams, Keith Oatley proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

And just as my grandsons’ piloting skills improve when they spend time in a flight simulator, so people’s skills of understanding themselves and others should improve when they spend time reading fiction.

Fiction gives readers an experience found only on the page. As we read, we can enter fully into the thoughts and feelings of fictional characters which simulates the feelings of other people.

Dr. Oatley notes, “I liken fiction to a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

So what exactly is fiction? Contrary to popular opinion, the word doesn’t mean untrue. The Latin word, fingere means to make. The Greek word, poesis also means to make. Both fiction and poetry come from the imagination, on the part of both the author and the reader.

Novelist Henry James said fiction is a direct impression of life. Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t agree with that statement. A novel, he said, is a work of art.

Oatley researched the effects of fiction on readers. He tested for empathy and understanding of others’ minds.

Participants looked at photographs of people, showing only the eyes. For each image, they chose the most appropriate of four words, “joking, flustered, desire, or convinced,” to describe what they thought the person was feeling at the time the photo was taken.

Regardless of personality type, people who preferred fiction had greater empathy than those who read mainly non-fiction. The more fiction people read, the better they were at having empathy for others.

Which leads us to our third question: Will reading fiction turn men into . . . sissys? Thoughts?

Until next time, . . . Sharon A. Lavy


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.