What Happens in Our Brains When We Read Fiction

Posted: August 15, 2012 in Entertainment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

You’re sitting on a beach, the sun beating hot against your back. Your dig your toes into the grainy sand to feel the cool earth beneath the surface. The smell of sunscreen and coconut oil hits your nose, and you listen to the sound of seagulls calling and waves crashing against the shore. An attractive stranger rises from the surf, water flowing down their body, bringing all sorts of possibilities to your mind’s eye. Just as you were losing yourself in your surroundings, “Single Ladies” blares out of your cellphone, jarring you from your romantic reverie. You shut your book with an unwilling sigh and reenter the real world.

When we read a novel, we are transported to another world. Many people think of fiction as an escape from reality, and now there is evidence that phrase isn’t just a metaphor. Researchers have found that when we read a physical description, our brain reacts as if the description on the page  is really happening to us. For instance, in the paragraph above, the words “coconut oil” elicit a response not just from the section of the brain that deals with language, but also the olfactory cortex, the area of the brain that processes smell. Words like “grainy” activate the sensory cortex, which responds to texture. Words involving motion not only activate the motor cortex, but even target the section of it that deals with individual body parts; when you read about digging your toes into the sand, it produces activity in the section of the motor cortex specifically responsible for leg movement.

With the knowledge that our minds blend the difference between fiction and reality, it comes as little surprise to learn that reading novels can impact our social identities. Researchers at University of Buffalo conducted a study where the participants were asked to read a passage from either Twilight or Harry Potter. The researchers then administered a test where participants responded to “me” words (mine, my) and “not me” words (they, theirs), which were linked with “vampire” or “wizard” words on screen. The participants who read the passage from Twilight were more quick to respond to the “me” words when they were associated with “vampire” words, and vice versa. Furthermore, after testing participants’ level of self-identification with those fictional groups, the researchers found that identification with the fictional community provided the same “mood and life satisfaction” as belonging to a real-world group.

I wonder what this research says about the benefits of reading horror stories. Any ideas?

  1. Staffan says:

    Horror stories are usually written from the victim’s perspective so that sounds a bit weird. What would be the life satisfaction of being chased by a serial killer? I guess torture porn with it’s third person perspective could work like that (for those who like to slow down to watch when there is a crash on the highway).

    But overall I think it’s about being there and not being there at the same time that makes it so appealing. You can enjoy the experience and even learn from it without the risks and hassles that most life experiences are so full of.

  2. That’s an interesting point! I suppose that this is what makes horror/suspense stories so thrilling, that we can truly put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, while the rest of the mind knows that we’re safe.

  3. Marcia says:

    Great post. For myself, I love being in danger theoretically, while actually being safe at home in my Comfy Chair. I can fight demons, thwart vampires, battle drug lords, right wrongs, conquer evil, and reap the rewards, all without really endangering myself. Since I’m basically a devout coward, this works very well for me. And the same goes for romantic stories…all the excitement of falling in love anew, with none of the worries about whether I’m young/pretty/sexy/smart enough to attract the handsome hero. Reading is a way to live multiple lives, and like your post mentions, I’m THERE. I CAN smell, hear, taste, and feel all the things a good book brings. If I’m NOT feeling it through and through, the writer hasn’t done their job, to my mind.

    Love this topic! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’ll be checking yours out more thoroughly, too.

    • Thank you! I love to escape to new worlds in fiction. I think that’s why I enjoy romantic comedies so much, because it lets me fall in love over and over again without any of the consequences. I have been wondering the last few days though, what do you think the appeal is for tragedies, if we experience everything that the heroine feels?

      Thanks for checking out my blog, and I look forward to reading more of yours!

      • Marcia says:

        Good question. Perhaps tragedies work as a catharsis of sorts. Reading them lets us release our pent up sorrows and heartbreak, and it’s okay to have a good cry at the end of the book, or while watching the movie. Just one possibility.

        They also remind us of how fragile life and love are, and that we should appreciate every day that we have on this earth. Plus, they keep us in touch with our humanity, and perhaps even help us prepare for the inevitable day that something really heartbreaking happens in our own lives?

        Just some thoughts off the top of my head. What do YOU think?

        And if you love romantic comedies, have you read Marisa de los Santos? I highly recommend Love Walked In, Belong to Me, and Falling Together. All three are love stories told in a nearly poetic fashion, with amazing character development, and situations that just pull you in so deeply. There’s humor and pathos galore. Maybe you would enjoy them. I’m not into Chick Lit, so I wasn’t expecting much when I started Love Walked In on the recommendations of a friend, but it was amazing. And Marisa de los Santos is now on my Must Read list.

  4. That was beautifully said. We do need to keep in mind the fragility of life to appreciate what we have now.

    I think that you’re right; tragedies let us release emotions that we can’t let go of in everyday life. Perhaps they let us let go of emotions that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to exorcise (for guilt, for the desire to hold onto what was lost).

    I’ve never read Marisa de los Santos, but I will! I’ll let you know what I think!

  5. Marcia says:

    Yes, I think Tragedy offers just as much to our wounded souls as Comedy, though in a completely different way, of course. And it probably wouldn’t do to limit ourselves to either one on an exclusive basis.

    I can’t wait to see what you think of Marisa de los Santos. Her first book is Love Walked In. (Crummy title for a great book). Belong To Me is the sequel, though I hadn’t realized it NEEDED a sequel until I read it. And Falling Together is a stand alone book, and my very favorite of the three. Hope you enjoy them when you get a chance to check them out.

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