Fiction on the brain

When we read a novel, the same areas of the brain activate as those that light up when we encounter something similar in the real world.

Smell a lilac, or read about the scent of lilacs — it’s pretty much all the same to our brains.

This fact is interesting enough on its own, but does it also have implications for “representational” theories of consciousness?

In “Your Brain on Fiction,” published by the New York Times on March 17th, Annie Murphy Paul reports that “brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters.”

Stories,” she writes, “stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” Paul refers to research showing that words related to scents activate not only language areas of the brain but also areas that typically respond to smells. Researchers observe similar results when subjects read metaphors involving touch or motion. Paul writes that 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.”

One interpretation of these kinds of results is that language prompts a realistic simulation of physical perceptions. Paul argues that “fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica.”

And, she writes, “in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.” Our “theory of mind” works the same way when interpreting interactions among fictional characters as it does when we experience “real” social life.

Paul cites a 2010 study that found that the more stories preschool age children had read to them, “the keener their theory of mind.”

A more sophisticated version of these ideas is part of the emerging academic discipline of “neurocriticism,” in which empirical data from brain scans informs new theories of characterization in literature. Some months ago, I reviewed Lisa Zunshine’s  Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind in the Novel (2006) one of the book length treatments of this new approach. It’s an interesting way of conceptualizing what happens when we read fiction.

But there’s another, more contentious interpretation of this group of fMRI results.

One of the major debates in current neuroscience is to what extent our minds are “embedded” or “situated.” The more one believes mind to be situated in the dynamic interplay between “inside” and “outside,” the less one tends to accept the previously predominant idea that our perceptions are “representational.” That is, it’s hard to reconcile the idea that mind is a social product with the idea that external reality is represented in the mind by a picture, a map, or some other abstract scheme.

If the perception centres of the brain make no important distinction between “real” and “imagined” objects, can one not argue that this shows that the mind exists within the workings of the brain — that all of our perceptions are therefore “representations”?

But perhaps it’s not that straightforward. What if the “disembodied” images we encounter when we read fiction are not themselves representations at all, but rather memory prompts of other, real perceptions? In other words, our fictional perceptions might not show that all of our perceptions are “fiction,” or representations, but might show, instead, that even our fictional perceptions, being memories, are essentially remnants of situated experiences.

Yet, what about our imaginings of fantastic creatures, or of places that never existed? Where do these perceptions come from? It’s no good to say that when we read “fire-breathing dragon” we remember an earlier depiction of a dragon — after all, where did that dragon come from? And the one before that? And the first one? If our minds are entirely embedded, how did we ever develop fantasies and mythologies in the first place?

Maybe we cobble together bits of real perceptions into new and imaginary things, but aren’t those things, then, merely mental, and not at all “situated”?

Then, there’s the entire philosophical can of worms of idealism vs. realism …

It’s more than a little bit complicated. I’m afraid that I don’t have the competence or confidence to come down on any one side of this question. I’m not even sure that there  are real issues here. Perhaps I’ve simply misunderstood some less obvious but crucial factor?

Anyone else out there want to take a shot at this one?

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2 thoughts on “Fiction on the brain

  1. Fascinating!

    I suppose all fiction and reading and imagination still requires memory in order to be able to function. Human’s are imaginative, but only within the realms of their own knowledge.

    A really interesting post!

    Thanks,
    xx GnG xx

  2. As a fantasy and sci fi editor, one of the things I love about these genres are their ability to make us see, feel, and experience things that are not physically possible in our world. A fire-breathing dragon is a bit of a stock example; the masters of the form create beings and experiences that seem almost wholly new. But do so (and here’s the clever bit) by cobbling together bits of embedded memory, things that are known, much the way collage artists create new images using existing ones.

    John Gardner called fiction “the vivid and continuous dream.” It is a kind of dream, I believe, and serves a similar function: to prepare us for what we have not yet encountered, and to show us the ways that the unknown reflects unseen facets of the known.

    We rewire the synaptic pathways in our brains with every novel we read that forces us to imagine something we’ve never experienced. No other art form so closely approximates the subjective experience of living. Fiction is, I believe, a powerful evolutionary force.

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