What Fiction Does To Our Brains.

Some new stuff about the neuroscience of fiction, from The New York Times: “Your Brain on Fiction.”

Based on brain scans, researchers are making inferences about what happens in our brains while we read fiction — specifically, what regions of the brain are associated with reading metaphor, figurative language or descriptions of physical actions:

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated … Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect 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.”

To that end, there was some earlier discussion of research (Guardian: “Reading fiction ‘improves empathy’, study finds”)* about fiction and empathy. On a side note, wouldn’t it be fascinating to learn about how our brains respond to different types of fiction? Does reading Proust activate different regions of the brain than, say, reading Dan Brown?

As far as our imaginations are concerned, getting immersed in fictional worlds is our best bet for a surrogate reality — “The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.”

And Science Daily (“‘Losing Yourself’ in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life”) weighs in with its own perspective, with studies on “experience-taking” suggesting that the extent to which we identify with fictional characters influences our own predispositions and opinions. The conclusions are a bit sketchy, but this rather clever experiment on the self and reading caught my attention:

“Experience-taking doesn’t happen all the time. It only occurs when people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading, Kaufman said. In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle with a mirror.

“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” Kaufman said.”

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*My understanding of that study was that reading enough Twilight and Harry Potter might actually could make you think you are a vampire or wizard (no really: see the fifth paragraph of the article). Yeah. The Guardian article does in fact include the phrase “Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale”.

But here is this interesting quote from Keith Oatley —

“I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world,” said Oatley. “The subject matter of fiction is constantly about why she did this, or if that’s the case what should he do now, and so on. With fiction we enter into a world in which this way of thinking predominates. We can think about it in terms of the psychological concept of expertise. If I read fiction, this kind of social thinking is what I get better at. If I read genetics or astronomy, I get more expert at genetics or astronomy. In fiction, also, we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have. And it turns out that psychologically there is a big difference between these two points of view. We usually take the exterior view of others, but that’s too limited.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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