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  1. #1
    Symbolic Herald Vasilisa's Avatar
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    Default Your Brain on Fiction

    Your Brain on Fiction
    By ANNIE MURPHY PAUL
    Published: March 17, 2012
    The New York Times

    Excerpt:
    AMID the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.

    Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

    Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

    In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

    Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement 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; 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.

    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.

    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. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

    It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.

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  2. #2
    not to be trusted miss fortune's Avatar
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    that is definitely an interesting article (read the whole thing... the last part about movies having the same effect as novels but tv not having the same effect was kind of fascinating as well)... I read all of the time as a kid to the point where most of my presents for christmas and birthday were books and visiting the library was something about the most exciting thing ever (I was one of the kids who would swing by the school library extra times a week in order to change out books because I'd finished reading them)... maybe this has given me some of the advantage of always being one step ahead in social interactions? (I know what you're thinking... before you do in some cases ... this works well in my field)

    my dad is also a voracious reader and has always been good at sales, even though he swears up and down that he'd never interact with anyone outside of a small group of friends and family if he had his way! Other members of my family were never as book obsessed and don't quite have the same knack for sales (my sis is an abysmal failure at selling things... as is my mom, for an example... both are more interested in visual arts and music than reading, despite the fact that my sis was a creative writing major)

    part of that is probably because if you read enough it's like cheating because you've spent years seeing from the inside how other people think and process things and come to conclusion... it's like reading the other team's playbook ahead of time

    I have to wonder if any of this is connected to the fact that the people have the love of reading in the first place though... could the interest in other thought patterns and situations in the first place have any impact on the results? that wasn't really looked at in the article...
    “Oh, we're always alright. You remember that. We happen to other people.” -Terry Pratchett

  3. #3
    Senior Member LEGERdeMAIN's Avatar
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    We are limited by our instruments(fMRI) when measuring for this sort of thing, so in the future it'll be interesting to see if there are differences between first-hand experience and reading evocative descriptions of that experience that we cannot detect with our current technology. I'd like to do a little bit of research on what parts of the brain are activated when thinking of vivid memories or dreams, and how they compare with the studies cited in the article.

    In a creative writing class once, we were given a prose-like description of a landscape and told to sketch out a likeness of what our minds created based on the what was read to us. The variation between each sketch was amazing, no two looked the same, or even very similar, but all had the required, basic components from the description. People are creative, even the ones who don't realize it, and we use that creativity daily to change words into images. As a mediocre writer, I find that the most difficult thing, at times, is to turn images into words without distorting the image.

    Ever since I read this article I've been dividing words into two categories: words that evoke a sensation, emotion or an image in my mind and those that do not. Writing new material and browsing over old writings the past few days has become more of a challenge as I notice quite a bit of my writing, like this reply, is dry and direct. The writings I have that easily flow out onto paper are much more image-oriented.... It seems like the more I overthink, edit and rewrite, the less evocative my sentences become. I wonder if you ever have this same problem.
    “Some people will tell you that slow is good – but I’m here to tell you that fast is better. I’ve always believed this, in spite of the trouble it’s caused me. Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba…”


  4. #4
    Sweet Ocean Cloud SD45T-2's Avatar
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    I don't read much fiction because I tend to find the real world more interesting. So I typically read about history, politics, true crime, economics, etc. I do appreciate a good narrative, though.

    I think visually, so whenever I read it's like I'm watching a movie inside my head. The more detailed the information the higher the definition of the movie. The movie can also have sound as needed. If I read a screenplay it almost feels like I'm actually watching/hearing the movie because it addition to the dialgue it also talks about the other things happening in each scene and what the camera is doing. I can also look at an object (such as a Smith & Wesson 4006TSW) in my mind's eye and manipulate it (zoom in/out, flip it over, rotate it, etc.) easily. I used to think everyone was like this and I was surprised to find out that's not the case.

    I'd probably make a good director.
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  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by SD45T-2 View Post
    I don't read much fiction because I tend to find the real world more interesting. So I typically read about history, politics, true crime, economics, etc. I do appreciate a good narrative, though.
    Seconded!

  6. #6
    Sweet Ocean Cloud SD45T-2's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nerd Girl View Post
    Seconded!
    IIRC, someone famous once said "God is not a second rate novelist." I just can't remember who it was.
    1w2-6w5-3w2 so/sp

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  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by SD45T-2 View Post
    IIRC, someone famous once said "God is not a second rate novelist." I just can't remember who it was.
    That's a good one.

  8. #8
    Analytical Dreamer Coriolis's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SD45T-2 View Post
    IIRC, someone famous once said "God is not a second rate novelist." I just can't remember who it was.
    Yes. The creations of God merit at least as much study as the creations of humans.
    I've been called a criminal, a terrorist, and a threat to the known universe. But everything you were told is a lie. The truth is, they've taken our freedom, our home, and our future. The time has come for all humanity to take a stand...

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