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Weaving a Story – Human Brain and Fiction!


Think for a moment: amid the pings and squawks of our gadgets, the habit of turning pages and unraveling the mysteries of a good novel can seem lost, even useless. The pleasure of reading fiction is fast becoming a myth! But here’s a fresh whiff of air for all those who love reading fiction. The ‘novel’ support is quite unexpected from this branch: neuroscience.

Now, brain scans can reveal what exactly happens in our brain when we read an emotional dialogue between characters, an evocative metaphor or a detailed explanation. This new research highlights the fact that stories stimulate our minds and even transform our lives. Fascinating, isn’t it? Read on to unravel the facts of this ‘novel’ research.

The ‘Novel’ Research!
Scientists have known for a long time that the “classical” language regions, such as Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, are responsible for how the human brain understands written words. For few years now, researchers have arrived at a conclusion that narratives stimulate other parts of the human brain as well. This makes it clear why the whole reading experience can make you “feel so alive!” Simple words like “coffee,” “soap” and “cinnamon” can not only evoke a response from the brain’s language-processing areas, but also elicit a response from smell-processing regions!

Researchers in Spain in a 2006 study asked members to read words associated with strong odors, along with neutral words. This task was carried out when their brains were being scanned with the help of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device. When the participants read the words “coffee” and “perfume,” their primary olfactory cortex was stimulated. However, when they came across words like “key” and “chair,” this region in the brain remained dark.

The ‘Reading’ Discovery!
Even the way our brains deal with metaphors has been extensively studied; a few scientists have come to realize that figures of speech like “a bad day” are so commonly used that they are simply treated as words. They don’t elicit any response.

However, a team of scientists from Emory University made a fantastic discovery which was reported in the journal Brain and Language. They observed that when participants read any metaphor involving texture, their sensory cortex was stimulated. This region in the brain is responsible for analyzing texture via touch. For example, metaphors like “He had leathery hands” and “The singer had a velvet voice” activated the sensory cortex. On the other hand, phrases which matched the metaphors in meaning, like “He had strong hands” and “The singer had a pleasing voice” failed to activate the sensory cortex region.

Researchers have found that words which describe motion also activate the brain’s region distinctively from language-processing regions. A study conducted by Veronique Boulenger, a cognitive scientist in the Laboratory of language Dynamics in France, revealed this fact. While the participants were reading sentences such as “Pablo kicked the ball” and “John grasped the object,” their brains were being scanned. The scans showed activity in their motor cortex. This brain region is involved in coordinating the body’s movement.

Fiction for ‘Brain Stimulation!’
The human brain does not make much difference between reading about an experience and confronting the experience in real life. In both cases, the neurological regions are stimulated alike. One of the most renowned professors of cognitive psychology, Keith Oatley, has stated that reading actually produces a ‘real’ simulation of reality. This vivid simulation “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

Fiction – with its detailed descriptions of characters and their actions, imaginative metaphors and vivid details – offers a ‘real’ replica. In a way, novels go further than just simulating reality to give us an experience not available off the page – the chance to witness other people’s feelings and thoughts completely!

The novel is a beautiful medium for exploring human emotional and social life. And there is clear evidence that just as the human brain responds to texture, smell and movement depictions as if they are real, it similarly treats the interplay among fictional characters as real-life social interactions!

Living a ‘Fictional’ Life!
Reading fiction allows us to identify with the protagonist’s frustrations and longings, keep guessing their hidden motives as well as track their interactions with the rest of the characters. It even acts like an exercise which polishes our real-life social skills.

As Dr. Oately notes, “Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

All these studies will definitely affirm our reading experience when we feel instructed and illuminated by a novel. Time and again, we find comparing a young Afghani boy to Khaled Hossieni or a homeless young orphan to Mark Twain. It has been a strong belief that reading great literature improves and enlarges us as humans. Now, even brain science reveals this discovery is truer than we imagined!

In the words of Angela Carter, “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.”

1 response to Weaving a Story – Human Brain and Fiction!

  1. Hi. I want to know if I can use the picture on the right of ‘reading discovery’ for a science fair?

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