Literature
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Fiction, Morality, and the Science of Reading

 

Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human. — Susan Sontag

Anyone who has ever cozied up in a corner with a fascinating novel knows the pleasures of an afternoon spent reading. Perhaps it was when you whizzed through breezy books like the Harry Potter series or spent time (and a great deal of energy) grappling with the more serious concepts put forth by the likes of Dostoevsky or Safran Foer. Either way, finding that truly engaging novel is a beautiful moment, and is always something to be cherished. As C.S. Lewis said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

But what if reading is more than just a simple pleasure, more than something that entertains, teaches and engrosses?

In a recent study from Emory University, researchers found that people who read stimulating novels had lasting neurological changes. The study only checked the participants’ brains up to five days after the test, but it appeared that their brains had been permanently rewired. Fascinatingly, these changes were found mostly in the left temporal cortex, which is the area in charge of language receptivity. Neurons in this part of the brain have been known to create “grounded cognition,” which is when your brain tricks your body into doing something just based on thinking. For instance, if you’re thinking about eating, your mouth may begin to produce saliva with the expectation that it will soon be processing food. When reading, your brain can be tricked into thinking you, the reader, are genuinely part of the story, deeply connected with the protagonist and his/her plight.

As Gregory Berns, the head researcher of the study, wrote, “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.” He added, “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

What’s happening is that readers are being made into more aware, more morally conscious people. In our day-to-day existence, we often only see one side of a person, oblivious to what’s really going on in their life or what could be driving their words and actions. Perhaps the seemingly weird, awkward classmate is, unbeknownst to his peers, helplessly watching his parents go through a divorce at home. Or maybe the attention-seeking narcissist at work has actually recently lost his brother, the only person who would validate him and quell his insecurities. When we read a novel, we get the whole picture; we see a character’s complete life. All the empathetic emotions we feel for characters in novels actually wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards people in the real world.

The ability to realize that other people may have differing beliefs, desires, intents and knowledge than oneself — what scientists and philosophers call “theory of mind” — is likewise enhanced by reading high-level fiction, according to a recent study in Science. Massive deficits of “theory of mind” can be found in people with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia, but, to a certain extent, everyone is somewhat deficient in this kind of empathy and understanding. We all tend to think mainly about ourselves and often forget that our priorities, our likes and dislikes, are not necessarily the priorities of everyone else. It is through reading books that this can be best countenanced and changed.

Ironically, one might learn about the world, about how to be a more empathetic and understanding person towards others from reading; but, if one were to spend all his/her time reading, one would never even have a chance to commiserate, to socialize in a truly positive way. I had the pleasure of speaking with the author Jess Walter, and, in talking about literary ambitions, he noted how so many people misunderstand the amount of loneliness that’s required to be a writer. The example he gave was of Ernest Hemingway. In the 1920s and ‘30s, many Americans who had read about Hemingway’s experiences in the fantastic restaurants and bars of Paris set out to find him in the very locales he describes. But, when they got there, they were invariably disappointed for he was rarely actually in the places he was writing about. He was alone, usually in his apartment, working away. Same goes with reading. If one were to understand a vast variety of characters by diving in to the literary greats and the modern classics — able to glean new information and attain unique perspectives — one would never actually have the time to use these newly learned viewpoints and understandings in the real world.

And thus, reading should never be looked at exclusively as a way to improve ourselves. Neuroscience and sociology show that books really do make us better people, yet it is important to never lose sight of the real meaning of reading. As Gustave Flaubert said, “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”

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10 Comments

  1. I’ve thought often that people who read good books (I mean literature) seem to be more sensitive and empathetic, and I was wondering what may be the cause and what the effect.

  2. Pingback: Fiction, Morality, and the Science of Reading | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.

  3. Reblogged this on Rebloging Likeys and commented:
    “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”

  4. amandainadress says

    Great post. Reading is the perfect tool for those of us who suffer from wanderlust.

  5. I know. Novels might create their own reality but that reality must not be expected to substitute the reality of existence of the reader. Perhaps simply put, books can’t replace socialization but can enhance our sensitivity to reality and other people. Thanks for a great post.

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