Your Brain on Fiction

There has been a long-held misunderstanding that reading fiction is just a passive pleasant diversion. Avid readers of fiction know that it takes serious brain work to bring meaning to a writer’s words and create a fully fleshed out sensory experience. Now there is brain research to back them up. In a recent posting to Psychology Today, Canadian professor and novelist Dr. Keith Oatley wrote the following regarding the findings of a 2012 study by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby, “Empathy is an example in day-to-day life. But yet larger effects, perhaps, occur in fiction when we identify with a literary character. So, although we remain ourselves we can become Anna in Anna Karenina or we can become Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice…We might think that we have just one life to lead, but fiction enables us to lead many lives, and to experience being many kinds of person.”

As well, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University and crecharge-your-minds-153o5pbolleague of Dr. Oatley’s, has found that the brain networks that we use to navigate our exchanges and relationships with other people are closely related to those we use to comprehend and appreciate stories.

Canadian author Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother and Makers, recently described his own visceral experience of reading a new book in a posting to Locus online – a sci-fi and fantasy fiction magazine, “Yesterday, I actually made a loud, horrified noise as I read an advance copy of Daniel Kraus’s forthcoming – and wonderfully horrifying – novel, Scowler. People on the bus stared at me. My heart raced. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My brain knows that none of the events depicted in Kraus’s novel are real, and yet my autonomic nervous system goes into full-on sympathetic reaction mode as I read the – once again, totally made up – accounts of the characters in the novel.”index

So as the holiday reading season approaches, why not plan some time to exercise your brain with a great novel or short story collection.

The final word goes to author Jessamyn West, “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.

Happy reading!

Submitted by Barbara Edwards, Librarian at Vancouver Public Library

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