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Neuroscience, Fantastika and Cliché: A Few Musings on the Effects of Reading Fiction

“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.'” – New York Times, 3/17/12

Last weekend the New York Times published a thought-provoking article on how our brains respond to words and stories. It discussed an array of studies that monitored the brain when performing assorted reading activities, noting what areas of the brain reacted to particular sorts of phrases. Two conclusions were drawn from these assorted projects: one, that our brain responds to written words, particularly action terms and metaphors, using areas “distinct from language-processing areas.” Two, that reading, in particular fiction, functions as a sort of social simulation that enriches our “theory of mind,” the ideas that we use to make sense of others’ actions and motives. “Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity,” the article claims, and the author ends with this inspiring coda:

“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. “

There is a lot to think about in this article, and also in the more detailed studies that contribute to it. But it is not just “great literature,” as the NYT article concludes, that stimulates and “improves” us; stories, metaphors, even a well-chosen phrase can elicit a response from other parts of our brain. What is suggestive in these studies is that reading is not just the absorption of written communication to be stored away or reused. There is a lot more going on in the act of reading and in the experience of reading fiction, for better and for worse, if we follow some of the conclusions of these studies along their possible courses.

There are three assumptions that this article and, to a lesser extent, some of the studies make about reading that should be highlighted. The first is the idea that these revelations are stunning, when really we’ve sort-of known them for a long time. The way that you recall a scent, or a feeling, or a memory when you read something all point to the fact that more than language processing is coming into play when we read. The first group of studies show that we can re-experience or reproduce a sensation mentally, but anyone who has reacted to a particularly powerful sentence or passage while reading knows this first-hand. The studies also demonstrate the power of metaphor to create more complex and vivid evocations, but this is a sensation that readers and writers have intimate dealings with.

The second assumption is that fiction serves a specific, prosaic purpose. Some of the studies emphasize very positive results from reading fiction, such as empathy and understanding of social praxis; fiction is perceived as a social educational device, its reading a utilitarian pursuit. While that is one of its potential applications, it seemed to me that most of these studies focused on a narrow interpretation of reading and its outcomes that limit our understanding of the effects of reading. This is an assumption that arises in other studies, too; Lisa Zunshine, in her book Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, discusses “the cognitive rewards of reading fiction,” for example. This is reflected in the choice of examples for the studies too, and it is here that these ideas become interesting for thinking about fantastic literature.

The third assumption comes primarily from the author of the article and one of the scientists (Dr. Keith Oatley, who is also a fiction author), which is the idea that these studies demonstrate the power of “great literature” and narrative drama. While not defined in detail, the presumption seems to be that these studies do not just demonstrate the power of language or of a conception of “story,” but of particular types of stories. This builds on the second assumption: the function is not mere education, but edification, a revelatory process that allows us to touch the humanity of others. It is both practical and poetic, but this formulation only tells part of the story of reading fiction.

As I read deeper into the studies, I had two thoughts: one, that the examples they used were either highly mimetic (“Pablo kicked the ball”) or frequently used, if not cliché, metaphoric phrases (“leathery hands”). The value of using recognizable and easily graspable word-formations makes sense if you are looking for some sort of baseline, but I immediately wondered what reaction there would be to “the door dilated,” to use a famous example. Two, that in the second group referred to in the article (such as the Mars studies, which were the ones I could find quickly), entirely different procedures were used to discover “the value of fiction:” psychological questionnaires. A more-recently written review of studies (of which I only read a non-attributable draft) discussed other types of studies, such as comparative fiction/non-fiction reading, but also looked beyond the more limited conception of “literature” to compare different genre-form presentations and see how readers responded. The conclusions still returned to social utility, but were not so narrow as represented in the NYT article.

I point all of this out because I want to consider what we can take away from these studies for a more meaningful consideration of fantastic literature. Can we consider fantastika as a different sort of “simulation?” What happens when a very unfamiliar metaphor is read? What happens when someone reads “the blue sun set in the north” or “the fish rode his bike proudly” or even “garrulous worms infected my libido?” In one study cited by Mars and his colleagues, participants read a non-fiction story about an Algerian women and then a fictional account of an Algerian woman’s life. What if that story had been a memoir of an astronaut compared to a science-fiction account of a trip into space?

If a commonly understood metaphor activates the sensory cortex, what does a unique one do? If a well-matched mimetic phrasing does not stimulate it, what does a lousy one do? When we start to talk about fiction that functions outside of these parameters, we can see how much still there is to learn about what fiction does. That means opening up the idea of fiction. Where is pleasure, where is revulsion, where is ennui? All of these studies seek to tightly control discourse and interpretation, and I wonder if this has more of an effect on the results than the scientists think? The oft-repeated point that fiction-reading can lead to better social discernment uses adult subjects with well-formed cultural schema, ideologies, and theories of mind. What if this is all just echoes of cultured responses?

Fiction does many things: it distracts, it befuddles, it reassures, it projects. It does not just simulate reality, it speculates on it. Fiction can essentialize the world, subvert our ideas about it, cause us to ruminate on what we think we know. Fiction is not a hard-and-fast object; it is implicitly cultured. We displace ourselves with fiction, not just to run social perception tests, but sometimes to get away from the social world around us. We seek new ideas; we seek comfort or pulpish excitement. Sometimes we find all of these things in various measures. Our response to a few phrases is not the same as our response to a novel. We are starting to learn about the ways in which our brain responds to the most rote and identifiable words and stories we have. There is still much more that fiction can teach us, especially the sorts that take us away from the everyday and the cliché.

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