Monday, March 26, 2012

What are all those books doing to your brain?!

Ever since I found Maryanne Wolf's highly engaging Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, I have been intrigued by the startling complexity of this seemingly simple task we engage in hundreds of times per day mostly without even being aware of it, from reading menus to traffic signs to text messages.

A recent New York Times article,
Your Brain on Fiction, describes recently discovered neurological effects of reading. For example, "Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind..."

Theory of mind refers to the "capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions," and is crucial to being able to empathize and engage in healthy social interactions. The article points out this connection between fiction and important real world skills:
"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.'"

Apart from the sheer pleasure of it, I can't think of a better reason to make time in your life for curling up with a great novel!

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