Our Brains Need Fiction

I came across a fantastic article on the New York Times all about the human brain on fiction. That is, how the human brain reacts when it’s reading a story. It kind of validated my entire life, and really hit home the fact that we NEED fiction. And movies. But, much as I enjoy it, the article hints that we don’t really need TV. Unless maybe we’re really focused and invested in the characters….but I don’t know. I’m not a neuroscientist. I just know a good story when I see it.

Annie Murphy Paul writes that “Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” When people were scanned by fMRI machines while they read metaphors, such as “This perfume is like a warm, sunny day,” the olfactory section of their brain would light up. Really getting into it and imagining the words made the people reading become fully engaged in the text, to the point where their brain almost believed it was experiencing what was read. Paul reports, “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”

But the most important thing I found in the article was something I’ve known for a long time. The more you read the better a person you are. No, really. That’s kind of what this article said. Here’s a direct quote:

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others….Individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.

Isn’t that fantastic?? If you have the time, definitely read the whole article. I think this is a link as to why so many people in liberal arts colleges double major in both English and Psychology (like I was going to do until a terrible stats class shunted me to the only-English side). Often academic and creative discussions of novels and stories turn into believability of character in their motivations, behavior and thoughts. I can’t count how many times in class I’ve wanted to discuss the merits of the language as opposed to how much we liked a character (though I’m definitely guilty of doing that, especially when it comes to the likes of Mr. Darcy…) or how realistic we found characters’ interactions. And now there’s scientific proof that it helps you be a more empathetic and understanding person. I think that’s more than a win for fiction–I think it’s a sign that people need to read more. I don’t care if it’s a hardback, paperback or Kindle–KEEP READING.

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2 thoughts on “Our Brains Need Fiction

  1. I always validate reading as a mental exercise for my students, but reading this article is also a powerful tool to motivate them and interest them in making it a pleasurable habit, rather than a boring chore.

    The way I see it, another reason I believe we may need fiction is because lessons and morals are better acquired through it, meaning that perhaps we grasp truth better if it comes wrapped in what is in essence a lie.

    Very interesting post.

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