Fiction as Brain Food

Source: Willamette University

This weekend, the NY Times ran an op/ed piece titled “Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul (online version here).

It was a fascinating article, and if you haven’t read it, you should definitely do so now. I’ll wait…

It looks at some of the different recent research into fiction and brain activity, suggesting that there are in fact many beneficial reasons to read narrative entertainment. I mean, other than, you know, supporting your local bookstore (which you should do, by the way).

A few points from the article:

1. The brain reacts in surprising ways to metaphor.

This seems a little obvious, but the fact that neuroscience is supporting this is pretty cool. For the longest time, I’ve had my students looking at the ways in which advertisers use concrete things and abstract concepts interchangeably. The argument is that they try to convince the viewer that buying a certain product will equal the abstract feeling associated with it. If I see a Pepsi commercial where everyone is happy and content, the natural association formed in m head is that Pepsi makes me happy and content. This new research suggests that not only is that possible, but the area of the brain that experiences those emotions could fire up, too. It’s still a little hazy on this area, as the research does show that the link between images and television might not be as strong as it is with movies and with books.

Thank god.

2. Is this a case for the resurgence of Cognitive Composition Theory?

Who cares, amiright? When I was in college, learning about all of the different comp theories, the cognitivists were the group of comp theory people that I just did not get. No matter how much I tried to read their garbage, I couldn’t understand why it mattered how long someone shook their foot while writing; it had nothing to do with writing.

This research seems to suggest that in fact, it is very important because your brain does some crazy shit while reading. We often say “show, don’t tell” when teaching people to write creative and evocative prose. I don’t want to hear that the character sang well, I want to hear how his or her voice sounds. It’s almost like the brain craves the real description, making the words do the work, not the brain.

3. Formulaic writing anyone?

This is probably just my paranoia from watching too many robots-kill-the-humans movies in my life, but I do get worried when you start to figure out what words do what things to the brain. It’s not going to be long before an algorithm is created that allows someone to plug in some names and places and voila! A book is created, guaranteed to please because of its ability to engage the brain of the reader.

4. It’s a good time to be a reader.

This has been a contention of mine for a long time, but it seems that we have the science to back it up. Not that we needed it, though.

I’ll try not to go off on too much of a tangent here, but it does seem odd that we as a society are extremely happy when science finally gets around to proving what we’ve thought all along. If you’ve read the book and seen the movie, 9 times out of 10, you prefer the book. Why is that? Because you are in charge of how the characters look, the details are up to you, and books just smell good.

Now that science is saying that books are good for us, we silently nod in reverence to the greatness of science… Maybe I’m a little cynical about it, but there you go…

5. If you have a story in your head, you need to get it out of there and onto paper. Like, need.

The article states 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.” I’ll try not to go off here, but it seems to me that multi-perspectival worldviews are the key to us actually sticking around long enough to start traveling through space and meeting all of those aliens out there, ready to invite us into the Grand Order of the Galaxy.

You want people to understand you? Sympathize with you? Write your story.

Our brains need it.


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