There is new support for the value of fiction from neuroscience, according to an article in the March 17th issue of New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul. For example, brain scans reveal how words like “lavender,” “cinnamon,” and “soap” elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.
Researchers from Emory University reported that when subjects read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active.
Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” roused the sensory cortex, while the phrase “The singer had a pleasing voice” did not.
It seems the brain does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life! In each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated, and in that way give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
Other studies report that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective.
Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.
It has long been thought that reading great literature enlarges and improves us as human beings. Modern brain science shows this claim to be truer than we ever imagined!