This article from the New York Times discusses how neuroscientists are using fMRI scans to see what parts of our brain light up when you read fiction.
I’ve always had a vivid imagination. At least, I think I do, since I’ve never been inside anyone else’s head, I don’t really have a point of comparison. This article makes me think I may yet have way to measure (at least internally) how vivid my imagination is.
Apparently, reading metaphors related to certain senses activates the same part of your brain associated with processing those sensory perception. Reading about strong smelling soap or cinnamon causes the olfactory part of your brain to activate as if you are in fact, smelling those scents. The same goes for your sense of motion or texture.
If reading can fire up your brain for physical experiences, is it any wonder how we can have such strong emotional reactions to what we read?
Perhaps the most useful thing we get from reading, is the “practice” for our own social interactions. Reading about characters who interact with one another teaches our mind how to deal with a similar situation in real life and gives us a hint of what the other person may be feeling on the other end of the exchange.
I have to wonder, however, if there’s a negative side to all of this. That by reading unhealthy fiction that we are giving our brains the wrong kind of practice. Practice that teaches us to explode with dramatic anger during arguments or to hold feelings in, looking for the best time to let them loose on someone.
I can’t say it better than the article’s own closing lines:
“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.”
The only thing that remains is to question myself: What kind of practice am I giving my brain?