There has long been talk amongst educators and parents regarding the importance of reading for children and young adults. Good reading and comprehension skills are tied to good grades and we all know how competitive we are. Lately, there has been a focus on how reading fiction teaches and instills empathy and fosters the development of compassion. A reader can walk in the shoes of a character and gain an appreciation of others’ experiences and feelings. This is a very good thing and something society as a whole should appreciate.
And now there is an additional reason for why we should be reading fiction. It’s not just for children anymore. This week’s NY Times Sunday Review contained an article entitled “Your Brain on Fiction.” The piece details new research coming from neuroscience.
Among the findings:
Reading sensory words stimulate areas of the brain devoted to the particular sense. MRI scans show that “cinnamon” lights up the area devoted to smell.
“A velvet voice” or “leathery hands” lights up the sensory cortex which perceives texture.
Words associated with movement like “kicked the ball” stimulated the motor cortex which is associated with body movement.
We’ve known for a while now (scientists starting in the 70s and mystics for thousands of years) that the brain is crucial for constructing our reality, but it often has a tough time discerning it. And reading is one case in point. Whether actually experiencing a life event or reading about it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the brain. The neurological regions involved are the same. Fiction creates a simulated reality where the reader enters a world of vivid detail and rich emotion. The reader’s brain accepts the unfolding of story in much the same way it accepts events in our own lives. What more could the reader or novelist hope for?