March 17:  Your Brain on Fiction Day

On this day in 2012, the New York Times published a mind-blowing editorial by journalist and author Annie Murphy Paul.

In her article, entitled “Your Brain on Fiction,” Paul summarizes a variety of studies from neuroscience that reveal how reading fiction stimulates the brain and enhances human experience.

One study, for example, showed how specific sensory words related to smells, such as “lavender” or “cinnamon,” activated not only the brain’s language regions, but also regions of the brain that are devoted to dealing with actual smells.  Another study using brain scans showed that words describing motion, such as “kick” and “grasp,” activated regions of the brain that coordinate the actual movements of the body.

Another study showed that even figurative language had surprising neurological effects.  When laboratory subjects read a sentence like “The singer had a velvet voice,” the sensory cortex, the brain region that perceives texture, became active.  In contrast, when a subject read the sentence, “The singer had a pleasant voice,” only language regions were activated.

Additional studies revealed how reading fiction relates to social skills in the real world.  Canadian studies published in 2006 and 2009 revealed that frequent readers of fiction were more empathic and more able to see the world from the perspective of other people.  In Paul’s words, “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

The studies summarized by Paul reveal that fiction is, in essence, the original virtual reality.  Reading fiction feeds our imagination with rich sensory imagery, evocative metaphors, and engaging details about the actions and interactions of people.  Long before we had computer simulations, fiction and storytelling gave us a way to simulate reality. In fact, one might even argue that fiction provides an enhanced reality because, as Paul puts it, “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” (1).

Today Challenge:  All the World’s a Page

What are some works of fiction that you think do the best job of simulating the real world?  Select a work of fiction that you love because its story captures the essence of real life.   Identify a specific passage from the work that you think exemplifies that author’s ability to simulate real life through description of characters, setting, or plot.  Pay attention especially to effective sensory imagery, figurative language, and/or dialogue. Copy the passage verbatim; then, write an explanation of what makes the writing in the passage exemplary.  (Common Core 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  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. -Annie Murphy Paul

1-http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html

March 16:  Simile Day

On this day in 1971, the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song by the American folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, won Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 13th Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles, California.*  The song was a number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks and has been covered by over 50 artists, including Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin.

Bridge Over Troubled Water single.jpgThe duo, made up of singer-songwriter Paul Simon and vocalist Art Garfunkel, met as children in Queens, New York.  Simon and Garfunkel were the most successful duo in popular music in the 1960s and were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” written by Paul Simon, is a tribute to friendship, employing the simile, “Like a bridge over troubled water” as a vivid image of dedication and devotion.

The song’s opening lyrics are as follows:

When you’re weary, feeling small

When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all

I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough

And friends just can’t be found

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

The simile is a rhetorical device that employs figurative language to create vivid imagery.  Unlike a metaphor, which says that one thing “is” another thing (as in “Juliet is the sun”), a simile uses the words “like” or “as” to admit that it’s a comparison.  In the words of author James Geary, “a simile is just a metaphor with the scaffolding still up” (2).

An easy way to remember the key characteristic of similes is to look at its Latin root similis, which is the same root from which we get the word “similar” meaning “like.”  Because similes use “like” or “as” they are more explicitly stated. Metaphors employ subtler comparisons.  In the words of poet and essayist Jane Hirshfield, “Similes make you think; metaphors make you feel.” Both devices share one key characteristic:  they build a bridge between the abstract and the concrete, allowing writers to employ fresh images.

Today’s Challenge:  Similes That Make You Smile

What are some examples of abstract ideas that might be defined by similes?  Generate a list of abstract ideas, such as friendship, success, imagination, power, failure, mistakes, memory, or intelligence. Select one of your topics and research examples of how these ideas have been defined by great writers using similes.  

The following are three examples on the topic of friendship:

Love is a flower like; Friendship is like a sheltering tree. -Samuel Taylor Coleridge

True friendship is like sound health; the value of it is seldom known until it is lost. -Charles Caleb Colton

Love is like the wild rose-briar; Friendship like the holly-tree. The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms, but which will bloom most constantly? -Emily Bronte

Once you have recorded your three similes, decide which one you like best and explain your decision.  Once you have critiqued your favorite similes on your subject, try your hand at crafting your own original simile by pairing your abstract idea with a vivid image that brings the abstract to life.

For example,

Friendship is like a fire that stays aflame only through constant attention.

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Teaching school is like having jumper cables hooked to your brain, draining all the juice out of you. -Stephen King

*Song of the Year is for the writer of the best song. This award goes to the songwriter.  Record of the Year is for the performance/production of the best song. This award goes to the performers as well as the recording engineers.

1-Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-20110407/simon-and-garfunkel-bridge-over-troubled-water-20110525

2-Geary, James. I Is an Other:  The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2011.