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.
Teen Read Week Chair
Editor in Chief, VOYA Magazine