Reflections: The Importance of Reading Fiction

Courtesy of Lacie SlezakI remember my college lit teacher ranting about how both the writer and the reader are selfish little animals that are “in it” purely for personal gain – about how a writer always writes about himself and a reader always reads about himself, and all-in-all they are both just self-centred little scumbags.  A bit of a gross generalisation there, if you ask me, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  In the end, I guess that is roughly why I always enjoyed reading – because of the kick I got out of it, not because I was keen on picking someone else’s brain.  And speaking of picking brains, some neuroscientists and psychologists seem to be quite partial to finding out what reading fiction does to us – neurologically.  And from their findings it seems that we might not be such selfish little dirt bags after all.

It hardly comes as a surprise that there is no special part of the brain dedicated solely to understanding stories (or at least we didn’t evolve that far yet, ha!).  Instead, we use basic cognitive functions to make sense of what we are reading.  In other words, our brain uses the same tools for understanding the stories as it does for understanding the real world.  Therefore, when we read stories, we invoke our personal experiences.  Have you ever read a story and had a “been there, done that” moment when the protagonist was going through a situation very similar to one of your own experiences?  Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, says that we can not only relate to fictional characters (duh!), but through reading, we are also able to gain new insight into things that have happened to us in the past.  And like that, real life shapes fiction, which shapes real life, which shapes fiction, which… you get the idea.  I think this also sums up the reason why two different individuals can interpret the same art of fiction completely differently.

Mar produced a study in which he presented a number of individuals with photographs of people and instructed them to describe the mental states of the people in the pictures.  The result of the experiment was surprising in the sense that even though bookworms are often thought of as socially awkward, they are remarkably good at interpreting other people’s emotions.  Mar further suggests that imagined experiences through narrative fictive stories are not unlikely to shape or change us, just like our real life experiences do.

In the past couple of years scientists discovered why reading fiction can feel so much like a real experience.  It turns out that words associated with characteristic smells, like “lavender” or “cinnamon” trigger a response not only in the language-processing area of the brain, but also the area responsible for dealing with smells.  A somewhat more recent discovery draws a link between reading a metaphor involving texture (such as “velvet voice”), and increased activity in the sensory cortex – part of the brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch.  Similarly, words describing motion stimulate the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.  So your brain treats fictional stimuli as if they were real.  What is even more fascinating, though, is that apparently it also treats the interactions among fictional characters as if they were real-life encounters.  I suspect there is more to this than what popular science publications would have us believe (after all, if my brain thought all the fiction I have read was real-life experience, I would most likely have a raging PTSD).  Nevertheless, it seems like reading might indeed be some sort of simulation of reality, as Keith Oatley, cognitive psychologist (and a published novelist), proposes.  Several studies show that frequent fiction readers tend to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see things from their perspective (scientists call this the Theory of Mind).

All of these findings leave me wondering to what extent did the books I have read really influence me.  More so because I consider myself a fussy reader (my rough guess is that I ditch about 7 out of every 10 books I start), so when I do find one that I actually finish, the rest of its author’s work is sure to follow right after.  Bearing that in mind, is it possible that I unknowingly ended up picking an author’s brain after all?  Did I assimilate his ideas, values and principles without realizing where they came from?  (As I’m typing this, I’m picturing Richard Dawkins, father of the meme theory, rolling his eyes: Du-uh!)

When I was a kid, I read plenty.  Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter were obligatory for every respectable kid my age, so that goes without saying.  I sneaked plenty of Douglas Adams, some Stephan King and some good old Edgar Allan from my older brother’s library (and regretted it for many, many nights to come).

School introduced me to the Czech author Karel Čapek, which most of the world knows as “that guy that invented the word robot”.  I fell in love with his short stories, then read the rest of his work.  He also happens to be the author of the only book I have ever managed to read more than once — An Ordinary Life.  It’s a fictional biography of an “ordinary” man that is oddly relatable.  I re-read it every couple of years, and every time I do, I recognize myself in the chapters I didn’t understand before, because I haven’t lived through that stage of my life yet.  So I guess at least in that the scientists are spot on (but so is my lit teacher).  Surely I could draw many more parallels – I do have a worldview that is almost identical with the author’s (with a slight update for the 21st century, perhaps), but I’d like to hold on to the idea that I chose to be the person I am, rather than my personality being a product of what I happened to read in my formative years.  Also, I’m rather happy that Poe didn’t stick.

All in all, I don’t know how much influence exactly fiction has on us, but I would say we all knew that it is a good one.  But surely it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it, since as adults we tend to reach for “responsible” non-fiction reads.  Hooray, guilt-free fiction for everyone!

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phot_veronikaVeronika Bacova was born in a country that no longer exists and raised in Slovakia.  She studied Media & Communication and consequently, she doesn’t take herself seriously or anything that she sees on the news.  Veronika takes keen interest in pop culture and science.  She’s acquired her English language skills largely from the Cartoon Network.  When she doesn’t play ukulele as means of procrastination, she enjoys making complicated sciency texts approachable to all.  Because democracy.

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