It is generally agreed that great literature is life-enhancing. Now neuroscience shows this claim is truer than we imagined with brain scans showing how our brain is stimulated when we read an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange.
The “classical” language regions of the brain are involved in how the brain interprets written words. Scientists now realize that narratives activate other parts of our brains, suggesting why words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those dealing with smells. Researchers in Spain had participants read words with odour associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned. The words “perfume” and “coffee,” caused the subjects’ primary olfactory cortex to light up; whereas with “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark.
Recently it was discovered that when people read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, becomes active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while same-meaning phrases, “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not. Confirming the golden rule of fiction to show, not tell.
words describing motion stimulate different regions of the brain from the language-processing areas. The brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Paul kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. This activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement was arm-related and in another part when it concerned the leg.
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life - the same neurological regions are stimulated. Fiction — with its similes, metaphors and descriptions of people and their actions offers a rich replica of life. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
The novel 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.
a psychologist at York University in Canada, concluded there was overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks navigating interactions with other people. Scientists call this “theory of mind.” Fiction offers an opportunity to engage in this, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies.
Studies show that readers of fiction are better able to understand, empathize with people and see the world from their perspective, even accounting for the likelihood that more empathetic people read novels. A 2010 study found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind.
This material originated by Annie Murphy Paul and passed to me by Mary Ann Williams, currently studying writing at Trinity College Dublin.