There are few things as satisfying as spending a weekend tucked up in bed reading a great novel — a story you can’t put down for fear of breaking the spell and losing the vital connection you feel to its suddenly living, breathing characters.
What is it about a great book or epic tale that causes us to ramble and swoon? A recent op-ed in The New York Times reveals some compelling reasons for why reading fiction can be such an all-encompassing and occasionally transformational experience.
In “Your Brain on Fiction”, writer Annie Murphy Paul draws on research by neuroscientists that reveals how intimately human beings experience fiction. Studies on how the brain is activated by language and storytelling indicates that a good story doesn’t just get in our heads; it lives there, bringing the colours and textures of the fictional world alive.
Read about the scent of jasmine coming from an open window and the olfactory regions of the brain are activated. A description of a character catching a ball or going for a leisurely walk along the Dublin Quays stimulates the area of the brain that controls motion.
These findings reveal that our brains don’t really separate reading about an experience from real-life. That may be why we cry when a character dies or experiences a defeat, or why we’re so elated by a romantic connection that wins out in the final pages.
Annie’s essay also makes another argument in favour of reading, however. Reading gives us the opportunity to truly empathize with the plight of another person — albeit fictional — she says. This exercise in empathy can go a long way in the real world. Annie cites studies that suggest people who read fiction frequently are more empathetic and socially savvy, a connection that makes all of those lazy Sunday afternoons reading in bed seem eminently worthwhile, if not necessary, to our continued evolution both as individuals and as a culture.