Back Thursday 17 Sep 2015 9:53 am

How Fiction Changes Your Brain

Researchers have been using MRI scanners for a while now to look at what happens to the brain when we read. Some of the insights are fascinating and others confirm what we thought we knew.

Various studies seem to be showing that the brain processes experiences we read about very similarly to a real-life experience.  

For example, Spanish researchers found that when you read a word associated strongly with a particular smell, like ‘coffee’, the primary olfactory cortex lights up - your brain takes reading the instruction ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ quite literally! 

In 2014 a team led by Leila Wehbe and Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon University’s machine learning department studied how the brain responds to fiction, asking their volunteers to read Chapter 9 of Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone in an MRI scanner. The research showed, not surprisingly, that the visual cortex (which processes what we see) did the initial processing and then higher level processing areas become involved.

However, things got more interesting when they started to look at how the brain responded to 195 specific features of the story such as characters, dialogue, particular words and even grammatical structures. What they found was that areas of the brain which are used for making sense of real life were used for making sense of the story. For example, when volunteers were reading dialogue, areas of the brain used for imagining someone else’s thoughts in real-life interaction lit up. 

In 2012 researchers are Emory University reported that when volunteers read metaphors, even clichéd ones, that involved texture such as ‘velvet voice’ or ‘leathery hands’ the sensory cortex lit up showing that the sense of touch was being activated. This did not happen for literal phrases with the same meaning such as ‘the singer had a pleasant voice’. 

Similarly, when we read about movement, the motor cortex lights up. This happened for the volunteers at Carnegie Mellon as they read about Harry Potter’s first flying lesson. In France, Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, studied volunteers’ brains as they read sentences involving actions. Not only did the motor cortex light up, it lit up in the specific part related to the action – for example, the leg-related part when we read ‘Pablo kicked the ball’.

There seems to be a lot of overlap between read experience and real-life experience, particularly in the networks in the brain which help us to understanding that others have different thoughts, feelings and knowledge than ourselves and to work out what these are. Psychologists call this ‘theory of mind’.

Reading fiction makes us see things from someone else’s perspective and practicing theory of mind through reading does also seem to transfer to real-world experience. Research by Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto, for example, that reading fiction helps teenagers with conduct disorder to learn empathy. In 2006, Doctors Oatley and Mar, among others, found that the more stories pre-school children have had read to them, the more developed their theory of mind. More recently these researchers have gone back to this issue to look at whether it really is fiction reading that makes the difference, or whether there are other factors, such as the  personality of the person who chooses to read lots of fiction or who is easily transported into the world of the book. Their 2006 findings seem to hold up, and, English teachers will be pleased to know, challenge the myth of the lonely bookworm with avid readers reporting good social networks.  Unfortunately, the same may not be true of non-fiction, with the same research suggesting that avid readers of expository non-fiction (as opposed to literary non-fiction), especially male readers, tending to be more lonely and isolated. 

The basic message, that reading lots of fiction is good for you, is one that English teachers know instinctively, but it is nice to have the science to back it up, especially when you are arguing for the importance of the library or trying to promote wider reading across the school.

In other good news for teachers and students of English literature, neuroscience also supports the idea that close reading is good for your brain. 

At Stanford’s Centre for Cognitive and Biological Imaging, Professor Natalie Phillips studied the brains of volunteer PhD students as they alternated between ‘casual’ and ‘close’ reading as they read a chapter from Mansfield Park. The result? Close reading stimulates many more parts of the brain than casual reading. Philips concludes that literary study is really good brain exercise, and who are we to disagree?