Friday, March 23, 2012

Fiction




All books are not equal, at least as far as brains are concerned.

Apparently, one can read all kinds of nonfiction — science, history, politics, philosophy, puzzles, technology — and some regions of the brain are left wanting. These are stimulated by fiction alone.

Brain science seems to confirm this.

Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In [one] study, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences [in a story]. The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.

The brain, it seems, 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. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, 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.

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation 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.”

But fiction draws one into simulations of experience we may want to embrace or avoid. Consider what the following passage from A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One (by George R.R. Martin) stimulates:

His father peeled off his gloves and handed them to Jory Cassel, the captain of his household guard. He took hold of Ice with both hands and said, "In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die." He lifted the great sword high above his head.

Bran's bastard brother Jon Snow moved closer. "Keep the pony well in hand," he whispered. "And don't look away. Father will know if you do."

Bran kept his pony well in hand, and did not look away.
His father took off the man's head with a single sure stroke. Blood sprayed out across the snow, as red as summerwine. One of the horses reared and had to be restrained to keep from bolting. Bran could not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched.

The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy's feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head,and kicked it away.

"Ass," Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran's shoulder, and Bran looked over at his bastard brother.

"You did well," Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, an old hand at justice.

Great popular fiction not only moves brains, it moves movies and television series.

"Game of Thrones" (based on the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels) completed one series on HBO and begins a second on April 1.



This post is the fifth in a series of seven for the 7 Day Blogging Challenge for Bloggers from +Jenson Taylor.