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TheNeuroscienceofYourBrainonFictionTheNewYorkTimes

SundayReview

OPI NI ON

YourBrainonFiction
ByANNIEMURPHYPAUL MARCH17,2012

AMIDthesquawksandpingsofourdigitaldevices,theoldfashionedvirtuesof
readingnovelscanseemfaded,evenfutile.Butnewsupportforthevalueof
fictionisarrivingfromanunexpectedquarter:neuroscience.
Brainscansarerevealingwhathappensinourheadswhenwereadadetailed
description,anevocativemetaphororanemotionalexchangebetween
characters.Stories,thisresearchisshowing,stimulatethebrainandevenchange
howweactinlife.
Researchershavelongknownthattheclassicallanguageregions,like
BrocasareaandWernickesarea,areinvolvedinhowthebraininterpretswritten
words.Whatscientistshavecometorealizeinthelastfewyearsisthatnarratives
activatemanyotherpartsofourbrainsaswell,suggestingwhytheexperienceof
readingcanfeelsoalive.Wordslikelavender,cinnamonandsoap,for
example,elicitaresponsenotonlyfromthelanguageprocessingareasofour
brains,butalsothosedevotedtodealingwithsmells.
Ina2006studypublishedinthejournalNeuroImage,researchersinSpain
askedparticipantstoreadwordswithstrongodorassociations,alongwith
neutralwords,whiletheirbrainswerebeingscannedbyafunctionalmagnetic
resonanceimaging(fMRI)machine.WhensubjectslookedattheSpanishwords
forperfumeandcoffee,theirprimaryolfactorycortexlitupwhentheysaw
thewordsthatmeanchairandkey,thisregionremaineddark.Thewaythe
brainhandlesmetaphorshasalsoreceivedextensivestudysomescientistshave
contendedthatfiguresofspeechlikearoughdayaresofamiliarthattheyare
treatedsimplyaswordsandnomore.Lastmonth,however,ateamofresearchers
fromEmoryUniversityreportedinBrain&Languagethatwhensubjectsintheir

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laboratoryreadametaphorinvolvingtexture,thesensorycortex,responsiblefor
perceivingtexturethroughtouch,becameactive.MetaphorslikeThesingerhad
avelvetvoiceandHehadleatheryhandsrousedthesensorycortex,while
phrasesmatchedformeaning,likeThesingerhadapleasingvoiceandHehad
stronghands,didnot.
Researchershavediscoveredthatwordsdescribingmotionalsostimulate
regionsofthebraindistinctfromlanguageprocessingareas.Inastudyledbythe
cognitivescientistVroniqueBoulenger,oftheLaboratoryofLanguageDynamics
inFrance,thebrainsofparticipantswerescannedastheyreadsentenceslike
JohngraspedtheobjectandPablokickedtheball.Thescansrevealedactivity
inthemotorcortex,whichcoordinatesthebodysmovements.Whatsmore,this
activitywasconcentratedinonepartofthemotorcortexwhenthemovement
describedwasarmrelatedandinanotherpartwhenthemovementconcerned
theleg.
Thebrain,itseems,doesnotmakemuchofadistinctionbetweenreading
aboutanexperienceandencounteringitinreallifeineachcase,thesame
neurologicalregionsarestimulated.KeithOatley,anemeritusprofessorof
cognitivepsychologyattheUniversityofToronto(andapublishednovelist),has
proposedthatreadingproducesavividsimulationofreality,onethatrunson
mindsofreadersjustascomputersimulationsrunoncomputers.Fictionwith
itsredolentdetails,imaginativemetaphorsandattentivedescriptionsofpeople
andtheiractionsoffersanespeciallyrichreplica.Indeed,inonerespectnovels
gobeyondsimulatingrealitytogivereadersanexperienceunavailableoffthe
page:theopportunitytoenterfullyintootherpeoplesthoughtsandfeelings.
Thenovel,ofcourse,isanunequaledmediumfortheexplorationofhuman
socialandemotionallife.Andthereisevidencethatjustasthebrainrespondsto
depictionsofsmellsandtexturesandmovementsasiftheyweretherealthing,so
ittreatstheinteractionsamongfictionalcharactersassomethinglikereallife
socialencounters.
RaymondMar,apsychologistatYorkUniversityinCanada,performedan
analysisof86fMRIstudies,publishedlastyearintheAnnualReviewof
Psychology,andconcludedthattherewassubstantialoverlapinthebrain
networksusedtounderstandstoriesandthenetworksusedtonavigate
interactionswithotherindividualsinparticular,interactionsinwhichwere

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tryingtofigureoutthethoughtsandfeelingsofothers.Scientistscallthiscapacity
ofthebraintoconstructamapofotherpeoplesintentionstheoryofmind.
Narrativesofferauniqueopportunitytoengagethiscapacity,asweidentifywith
characterslongingsandfrustrations,guessattheirhiddenmotivesandtrack
theirencounterswithfriendsandenemies,neighborsandlovers.
Itisanexercisethathonesourreallifesocialskills,anotherbodyofresearch
suggests.Dr.OatleyandDr.Mar,incollaborationwithseveralotherscientists,
reportedintwostudies,publishedin2006and2009,thatindividualswho
frequentlyreadfictionseemtobebetterabletounderstandotherpeople,
empathizewiththemandseetheworldfromtheirperspective.Thisrelationship
persistedevenaftertheresearchersaccountedforthepossibilitythatmore
empatheticindividualsmightpreferreadingnovels.A2010studybyDr.Mar
foundasimilarresultinpreschoolagechildren:themorestoriestheyhadreadto
them,thekeenertheirtheoryofmindaneffectthatwasalsoproducedby
watchingmoviesbut,curiously,notbywatchingtelevision.(Dr.Marhas
conjecturedthatbecausechildrenoftenwatchTValone,butgotothemovieswith
theirparents,theymayexperiencemoreparentchildrenconversationsabout
mentalstateswhenitcomestofilms.)
Fiction,Dr.Oatleynotes,isaparticularlyusefulsimulationbecause
negotiatingthesocialworldeffectivelyisextremelytricky,requiringustoweigh
upmyriadinteractinginstancesofcauseandeffect.Justascomputersimulations
canhelpusgettogripswithcomplexproblemssuchasflyingaplaneor
forecastingtheweather,sonovels,storiesanddramascanhelpusunderstandthe
complexitiesofsociallife.
Thesefindingswillaffirmtheexperienceofreaderswhohavefeltilluminated
andinstructedbyanovel,whohavefoundthemselvescomparingapluckyyoung
womantoElizabethBennetoratiresomepedanttoEdwardCasaubon.Reading
greatliterature,ithaslongbeenaverred,enlargesandimprovesusashuman
beings.Brainscienceshowsthisclaimistruerthanweimagined.
AnnieMurphyPaulistheauthor,mostrecently,ofOrigins:HowtheNineMonths
BeforeBirthShapetheRestofOurLives.
AversionofthisopedappearsinprintonMarch18,2012,onpageSR6oftheNewYorkeditionwith
theheadline:YourBrainonFiction.

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