I 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. Read More