A couple of my friends alerted me to a recent article in the New York Times about what happens to our brain while we are reading. In a past post I cited a NYT article on how metaphors operate within the brain—they can make as vivid an impression as actual sensory stimuli—and this article continues along that line. It’s not only sensory impressions that the brain registers while reading, the author writes. It is life experiences themselves:
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. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” 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.
That reading literature helps us negotiate life is, of course, the basic premise of this blog. The article sums up the significance of the findings as follows:
[I]ndividuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.
And then further on:
Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. 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.”
Of course, you and I were aware of this all along, a case of scientists confirming what humanists already knew. Still, it’s nice to see it confirmed in a hard science way.