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?