Your Brain on Fiction

NeuroFiction

An article in the New York Times published on Saint Patrick’s Day caught my attention for its premise: fiction improves our minds. I believe this to be true, but haven’t looked too deeply into the science of it. Science author Annie Murphy Paul has. Her article confirms my personal experience of the effect of reading fiction on mental, social and life skills.

AMID the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.

This got my neural processors firing away in anticipation of a good intellectual workout. Paul makes a compelling case for the power of the novel to engage, exercise and improve the brain.

The brain, the article reminds us, does not distinguish between imagining an experience as we read about it and actually experiencing it in real life. To the brain, one is as real as the other. This is a key principle of achieving excellence in any endeavor, practicing it in our minds so thoroughly that our mind cannot accept less than the perfect execution.  High performance athletes understand this. Just as jet fighter pilots, high steel workers, leading corporate innovators, and neurosurgeons do. The fact that a good novel engages our mind and thrusts us into the heart of risk, danger, adventure, romance, achievement functions the way it does because our minds understand sensory details, evocative metaphors, and stimulating situations with such rich and complex experiences of reality that we discover and learn much as if we actually travelled, trained and risked as the novel’s characters do.

According to two scientific studies cited in the article, our experience of a novel hones our real-life social skills. The more we read fiction, the better we are able to understand other people, empathize with their challenges, and credibly see the world from their perspective.

Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

Previously I held this truth to be self-evident. Now, I have proof that my preference for the novel literary form is pragmatic and has a basis in science.

Related Links

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul, NY Times, March 17, 2012

Annie Murphy Paul | Science Author  -  TED     Nov. 2011

 

 

 

Novelist Ann Patchett Opens Bookstore in Nashville

Novelists are an adventurous breed. So are their readers.

For readers, all that is left after the decline, fall, and selling-off of Borders bookstores down to the fixtures, is grief. And memories of what a bookstore can mean to our quality of life. So many of my favorite weekend moments were spent in the stacks at my local Borders. Knowledgeable sales staff, friendly fellow explorers on the path to enlightenment picking through towering shelves of books, looking for one book, discovering dozens of others that informed new directions in their journey.

Sales of e-books surpassed sales of physical books earlier this year. This isn't a trend. We all know that our relationship to the written word is evolving. Schoolchildren totally get it; why carry a heavy backpack of textbooks when they can carry all the texts they will ever need in a featherlight tablet?  So what is the value of ink on paper? Sentimentalism?  For some, perhaps. For many, it is something deeper, much like the preference for live theater over cinema, or cinema over television, or television over netcast. For some, it is a physical connection, a tactile interaction with the process of reading. Like peeling back the layers of clues in a good mystery.

So what is to become of the book loyalist? Where is s/he to go? There is Amazon, of course. And Abe's, Powell's, Tattered Cover, Book Barn, B&N and others. Those are distant purveyors. The wandering weekend explorer has fewer options.

Karen Hayes and Ann Patchett

Now, in an interesting new reaction to digital media and the vanishing bookstore experience, we have the novelist opening a book store, a bricks and mortar emporium of the printed word. Whether Ann Patchett's new Parnassus Books in Nashville is the start of a new stage of publishing and distribution, or a quaint exhibit on the timeline of literature's evolution is to be seen. I hope it is the opening sentence in a powerful and engaging new story.

Related link

Julie Bosman | NYT:  Novelist Fights the Tide by Opening a Bookstore

To Teens, Knowledge is Infinite

Child is Father/Mother...

Despite the rancor at town hall meetings across an increasingly stressed America, there is some very good news coming from a hopeful source: high school students and rising college first-year students.  While so many adults are indulging in anti-social rage against change, their children are quietly learning, preparing, observing and developing their personal life plans.  From the look of things, they are choosing change, seeing promise in lifelong learning, knowledge as infinite, and following discovery where it leads as long as it results in good - for themselves, their families, their communities and their planet.

In a related article by Tamar Lewin about the rapidly diminishing importance of textbooks in high school education, there is an intriguing subtext that made me sit up and pay attention - students are relating to the world they are inheriting in a productive way that contrasts with their elders' approach.  If you get a moment, read In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History (NYT, 9 Aug 2009).

e-Publishing Opens Doors for Authors

Good Times

Just as when the IBM personal computer arrived (1981), Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh with GUI (1984), the venerable Selectric and Selectric II became obsolete, and a universe of entrepreneurial and artistic opportunities opened to writers, the Kindle, Sony Readers, iRex, Lexcycle's Stanza and other downloadable readers have opened doors to a new world of publishing possibilities. While the major players sort out the e-Publishing landscape, engineer the infrastructure, and build the new e-pub world, we writers are exploring, beta testing, and blazing new entrepreneurial paths ... all while continuing to write, write, write. This is a good time to be a writer, don't you think?

Kindle UPDATE - Kindle vs. B&N Free eReader:  See David Pogue's PERSONAL TECH column, "New Entry in E-Books a Paper Tiger," in the August 6th edition of the New York Times.  Barnes & Noble's new e-reader offers PC access to e-books.  The eReader tablet itself is promised for later.