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