Art Beat: Study: novels stimulate the brain, even after you stop reading

mdunham@adn.comJanuary 17, 2014 

Reading makes you smarter. So we're told by teachers, parents and every sage since antiquity except Socrates -- who I suspect was drunk and wanted to start a fight.

I agree with the statement in general. But I've always thought that what supplied the smarts were the facts one learned by reading, in which case one should read nonfiction. The line of to-be-read-next books on my shelf consists mostly of histories with a few science books mixed in. Perhaps it's a professional as well as a personal inclination.

But a recent study from Emory University suggests I'm wrong. The study, published Dec. 9, indicates that fiction may be better for your brain than non-fiction. Specifically, reading a novel. The long-form stories dredged up from a writer's imagination and reprocessed in the mind of the reader rotate wheels that otherwise sit stuck in your cerebellum, and those wheels keep spinning for days after you've finished the book. Maybe longer.

Neurobiologists took 21 undergrads and had them read Robert Harris' historical thriller "Pompeii." Before and after reading, the readers underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which I'm guessing supplies something like a readout of your cogitative switchboard.

Researchers found "heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex" -- the part of the brain associated with language -- a day after the subjects did their reading. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study, likened it to the "muscle memory" of an athlete or musician; he called it "shadow activity."

The readout from another part of the brain, said to recreate physical sensations even when one is not engaged in a physical action, also showed heightened connectivity.

This connectivity, one cluster of brain cells communicating with another cluster, is critical to fast thinking and reaction, a phenomenon well-discussed in Daniel Coyle's treatise on performance, "The Talent Code." He shows that the more a connection is repeated, the stronger it becomes and the more one masters a discipline.

In the Emory study, the heightened connectivity attributed to reading fiction continued for at least five days after readers put the book down; the study didn't track the subjects longer than that, but Berns noted that "Pompeii" had been chosen as a random page-turner. He speculated that the effect might linger longer if someone was engrossed in a novel they selected themselves on a theme they really liked.

"We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else's shoes in a figurative sense," Berns was quoted as saying. "Now we're seeing that something may also be happening biologically."

What do novels do that even an exciting science text doesn't? They transport you into the body of the protagonist, Berns said.

Applying Coyle's principle to Berns' research, I imagine a process whereby the reader who develops an empathy for a fictional character exercises the mental flexibility needed to empathize with nonfictional people -- the individuals he or she encounters in real life. That attitude, some say, contributes to a better quality of life for the empathizer.

There's probably more to it. Feeling for another person has benefits, but the process by which one acquires those feelings is also beneficial. A door left shut for several years becomes stuck; the same door, properly opened and closed with regularity and light maintenance, works indefinitely. In a similar fashion, while nonfiction tells you natural facts, good fiction supplies an understanding of human nature -- why we react bravely or cravenly in an unexpected situation, why we may behave honestly or deceptively when confronted by a crisis.

Few of us share the vehemence of Captain Ahab's thirst for revenge in wanting to kill a particular whale, but by reading "Moby Dick" we can realize why he is so driven. While Ahab is a fabrication, real people with Ahabic tendencies cross our paths with regularity -- I may see such an individual in the mirror some morning -- and when they do, having been drawn into Ahab's skin by Herman Melville's prose, they will not be alien to me, but recognizable representatives of the human condition whose passions can be put into perspective.

Anecdotally, many senior citizens I know who approach the century mark with alert minds and contented attitudes are those who habitually read novels. I'm somewhat concerned about those my age or younger who say that they don't read for pleasure at all; I fear I'll have to make their acquaintance over and over again in the Alzheimer's ward some day.

Or they may wind up making my acquaintance if I don't start larding my nonfiction reading with more novels. The Emory study focused on that form; it says nothing about short stories or poetry, theater or cinema, all of which can place you, vicariously, in the shoes of another. Just a guess, but the richness of novels may be uniquely suited for facilitating the empathetic transfer. In which case we may want to revise the old saying:

Reading novels makes you smarter -- and happier.

Poems for parks sought

Poems in Place, the project that puts poetry by Alaskans on display in state parks, is soliciting verse for two locations: Independence Mine State Historical Park and Aleknagik State Recreation Site in Wood Tikchik State Park near Dillingham.

Previous poems posted on permanent signs include works by the late state poet laureate John Haines, Kim Cornwall, Frank Soos, Ernestine Hayes and Emily Wall. They can be found at Beluga Point in Chugach State Park, Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan and Chena River State Recreational Area near Fairbanks. You can see them all here.

The call for submissions for the new sites is open through March 15. Information, contest rules and entry forms are available online. There's no fee to enter.

Object Runway judge gives talk, workshop

As noted last week, the Object Runway extreme fashion show scheduled for this coming Thursday is sold out. But you can still meet celebrity judge Steinunn Sigurdardottir, who has an international reputation with a line of knitwear inspired by her native Icelandic landscape. She'll present a collective "rhythmic knitting" workshop -- "performed to the beat of a percussionist" -- at 4 p.m. Friday at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art. Bring knitting needles and the coarse yarn of your choice. It's free. At 7 p.m. that evening, Sigurdardottir will present the Alaska Design Forum "Bling" talk at the Anchorage Museum. Admission to the talk is $10, $5 for students.

In Iceland, the designer's last name is spelled with an eth -- the Icelandic alphabet character that looks like a little "d" with a line through the stem, transliterated as "d" in English and said to be pronounced with the voiced "th" sound, like "this," not "thistle."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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