Teen Read Week: Fiction Science

It is a wonderful thing when science confirms what librarians and book lovers seem to know instinctually. In March, a New York Times article noted research being done in the field of neuroscience about the effect that reading fiction novels has on the brain. See “Your Brain on Fiction”.

When we read stories with detailed descriptions, metaphors, and sensory words, beyond the language parts of our brains, other parts are reacting the same as they do during an actual experience, which is why some writing feels so alive. For example, reading words like lavender or cinnamon can evoke the same response in the parts of our brains that understand smells. Reading an emotional exchange between characters can affect the same areas of our brains as if we were doing the interacting. Particularly textural metaphors activate the sensory cortex, so that descriptive phrases using words that have touch meaning for us, like leathery hands or a velvety voice, makes our brains more active, more involved in what we are reading.

Motion words also stimulate more areas of our brains beyond the language processing area. The motor cortex becomes active when reading phrases like John kicked the ball, specifically in the area that concerns movement of the leg. Another area is stimulated when the phrase involves arm movement.

The research is showing that our brains do not make much distinction between reading about an experience and real life experience. One theory noted in the above article proposes that “reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

Another aspect of novel reading that is beyond reality is the ability to enter the thoughts and feelings of another person. There is evidence that the brain reacts to interactions among fictional characters in a similar way that it does during real-life social encounters. ‘ The study results propose that novel reading is the perfect medium for exploring social and emotional life, and novel readers are better able to understand and empathize with other people.

As the article author, Annie Murphy Paul, speculates, “Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.” What book lover didn’t already know that on some level? When we teach descriptive writing skills to young people, we encourage them to think of all five senses when they write to make the story more interesting to the reader. Now science knows why that works.

RoseMary Honnold

Teen Read Week Chair

Editor in Chief, VOYA Magazine

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2 Comments

  1. This is a great article, especially for the LIS field! One thing that comes to mind is “hooking” kids on books when they are young. As the New York Times article indicates, fiction readers are more likely to be empathetic towards others and see the world from their perspective. I think this comes into play when we run across students who claim they don’t like to read, or parents who struggle to encourage reading. Perhaps these kids haven’t experienced the “right” text, or haven’t been reading fiction they find personally engaging. Of course there is no one miracle text for all kids, but if we as librarians can find various resources that truly engage the brain, our chances of capturing and maintaining readers are higher. This also brings to mind a study my cousin-in-law conducted (shameless plug alert) on empathy and fiction: http://www.citeulike.org/user/waiyen/article/9993875.

  2. When reading fiction and novels, as the article notes, a lot of the brain is active because the writer must convey ideas that reach all of the reader’s senses while remaining fairly intangible. I have heard many people say that they only like “true life” stories, such as those in magazines like People and Sports Illustrated, and I have also heard teaching professionals argue that any reading is good reading. Obviously, this is not the case, as I have argued for years. Reading about personalities only gives information, but reading fiction or more descriptive text makes the brain work. Luckily, most professional teachers I know read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, so the students’ learning is tailored to fit any given reader’s needs. I would argue with the term “great literature,” as it implies difficulty above some readers’ abilities and tends to conform with certain canons, but if a story is engaging, I would tend to say that it is great, even if not “great.”

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