As many worlds as stories

Last month, the New York Times published in their Sunday review an article by science author Annie Murphy Paul. The article describes some research findings that shed an interesting light on the effect reading has on the brain. We’ve all had the feeling of being drawn into a book, like a dream. But recent studies suggest there might be more going on than we realise.  A 2006 study in Neuroimage discovered that reading words like ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee’ actually activated parts of the brain responsible for processing scents. A study published in the journal Brain & Language in March found that parts of the brain that process touch are used to make sense of metaphors related to texture such as ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ or ‘He had leathery hands’. A French study in 2008 even found that descriptions of motion activated the motor control system of the mind. One of the researchers conducting this study went on to demonstrate, just this year, that when our brains activate different senses in response to words, they are not remembering previous experiences, but processing entirely new sensations.

When we read, we are transported in a remarkably literal sense, by the words and the senses they evoke, into other worlds.”

In each of these experiments, when participants read words, their brains reacted as if they were actually experiencing the sensations and activity described. And not only at a purely physical level, but in abstract metaphors as well. When we read, we are transported in a remarkably literal sense, by the words and the senses they evoke, into other worlds. Moreover, a massive study by Raymond Mar discovered that the same parts of the brain used when interacting with other people, are used to understand and get to know characters in novels. In collaboration with several other researchers, Mar went on to explore this further and found that people who frequently read fiction are “better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” Just another reason I guess.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), ties all this up well with the proposal that, “reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that ‘runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.'”

Annie Murphy Paul concludes, “Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”



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