Fiction readers’ secret advantage

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reading fictionFascinated with all things teaching and learning, naturally I read a lot of non-fiction.  Common Core–national educational standards now being adopted by most states, Wisconsin included–also put an increased emphasis on teaching non-fiction texts. Certainly, information synthesis, research, and analysis is an important skill in the 21st century.

But maybe non-fiction isn’t your thing.  Maybe you just like to lose yourself in the guilty pleasure of a great adventure, or mystery, or fantasy, or . . . steamy romance novel.  While immersing yourself in a great story has long been thought of as a perfect summer activity, most of us might not think we are actually doing our brains any good indulging in such frivolous distractions.  Further, some might argue reading trashy novels even sets us back a couple of notches.

Scientists however, are now beginning to uncover some interesting–and powerful–benefits of reading fiction.  Not only do we receive many of the same physiological benefits as meditation–reduced stress, deeper sleep and less memory loss—recent neuroscientists have also discovered that the rich descriptive language found in fiction gives our brains a unique whole-brain type of work out—exercise which results in giving those who read it, a distinct advantage over those who don’t.

It’s long been known that specific brain regions designated to interpreting words, like Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, are activated when we read.  But several recent studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans have found that reading words like “lavender,” “coffee,” and “cinnamon” also activates parts of the brain responsible for analyzing smells.

Additionally, researchers have found that reading figurative language involving texture activates the sensory cortex, the area of the brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch.  Phrases like, “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” caused sensory cortex images to light up on the scans, while phrases, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Similar results occur when reading words that describe motion.  Sentences such as, “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball,” also activate the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.  Even more interestingly, when subjects read descriptions of arm movement the specific motor cortex area responsible for the arm lit up.  Descriptions of leg movement activated the area responsible for moving the legs.

What this tells us is that our brains don’t differentiate greatly between a real experience and the reading of a vividly described one.

Further, a novel, with its rich details and figurative language, can often simulate for us experiences beyond our own limited realities.  Because fiction activates so many areas of the brain, the resulting simulation often allows us to fully immerse ourselves in the thoughts and feelings of another. Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Dr. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, have found that reading fiction also increases our ability to comprehend the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of others.

“Fiction is a particularly useful simulation,” says Dr. Oatley, “because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Following a cast of dynamic characters through a story in which you engage in understanding, anticipating, predicting, empathizing and identifying with individual frustrations, motivations, desires and flaws is a great brain workout!  And, as it turns out, doing so by immersing yourself in the simulated environments your brain creates, is also outstanding practice for your interactions and relationships in your day-to-day life.

So sure, non-fiction is very informative.  But research has shown that it’s time to drop the “guilty” from the “guilty pleasure” of losing yourself in a great story.  So feel free to grab your favorite beverage, put your feet up, and get lost in a few novels this summer—guilt free.

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  1. Amy Klein says:

    I’m a guilt-free believer in fiction. Now, as CCSS asks us to up the arguments and turn down the voice in writing, I want to hear more research on the benefits of writing fiction and poetry.

  2. The CCSS does not call for less fiction reading. It calls for MORE nonfiction reading, MORE reading in general. This is a fine distinction but an important one. Chris, I don’t mean to suggest that you claim the this, but often I hear a concerned argument in favor of fiction…as if somehow, the new standards are arguing against it. This is not the case at all. The CCSS calls for more “disciplinary” reading, Reading in science and social studies classes. This is a good thing. Teachers of literature, will and should still be teaching, literature. Teachers of reading and language arts will still have a mix of fiction and nonfiction genres.

    Thanks for another great post!

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