Fictive Worlds and Real Brains: The Psychology of Reading

If you’ve ever gotten lost in a good book, you know the feeling of being transported into a different reality: Awareness of your surroundings melts away, time seems to stop, and you immerse yourself completely in the world of the book. Like daydreaming, this feeling of being carried into another world is an alternate state of consciousness, a shift in the way the brain interprets and reacts to our surroundings. It is not surprising, therefore, that some literary critics have begun exploring ways in which cognitive science, the study of how the brain works, may help us better understand what happens when we lose ourselves in a book. However, not everyone agrees that this approach to literature is informative or even appropriate, as the articles noted here demonstrate.

The application of neuroscience to a description of how the reading process works can be called by many different names. In “The Neuroscience Delusion” Raymond Tallis calls it neuroaesthetics, and he proclaims that it “is wrong about our experience of literature–and it is wrong about humanity.” He begins his lament against the “literary critic as neuroscience groupie” with reference to two commentaries (hyperlinked in the article) in which writer A. S. Byatt invokes neurophysiology to explain the appeal of poetry and novels: “Evolutionary theory, sociobiology and allied forces are also recruited to the cause, since, we are reminded, the brain functions as it does to support survival.” But “neuroscience groupies reduce the reading and writing of literature to brain events that are common to every action in ordinary human life, and, in some cases, in ordinary non-human animal life.” Tallis objects to such reductionism, which “loses a rather large number of important distinctions: between reading one poem by John Donne and another; between successive readings of a particular poem; between reading Donne and other Metaphysical poets; between reading the Metaphysicals and reading William Carlos Williams; between reading great literature and trash.”

Tallis also tackles a significant assumption underlying the application of neuroscience to our appreciation of works of art, including literature–the assumption that the brain is the same thing as the mind, or human consciousness: “The appeal to brain science as an explain-all has at its heart a myth that results from confusing necessary with sufficient conditions. . . . Everything, from the faintest twinge of sensation to the most elaborately constructed sense of self, requires a brain; but it does not follow from this that neural activity is a sufficient condition of human consciousness.” He emphasizes that, despite modern technology’s ability to produce pictures of brain activity, scientists still know very little about how the brain actually works and how it turns sensation into conscious awareness. “You would not guess how little we know or understand from the hyping of popular neuroscience in which some quite reputable neuroscientists seem to collude,” he writes. This approach to literary criticism is yet another reductionism, one that “actually undermines the calling of a humanist intellectual, for whom literary art is an extreme expression of our distinctively human freedom, of our liberation from our organic, indeed material, state.”

In “Mind Reading” Alison Gopnik reviews one of the books applying cognitive science to our appreciation of literature–Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene (Viking, 2009)–for The New York Times. Following Dehaene, Gopnik declares “reading is a relatively recent invention, dating to some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. Our brains didn’t evolve to read.” According to Dehaene, “reading is highly constrained by fixed, innate brain structures with only a little flexibility, just enough to allow this unprecedented skill to emerge at all.” Recently neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is much more plastic–more able to adapt to the influences of experience–than had been thought before. It is this combination of innate structure and flexibility in the brain that allowed reading to develop.

Also in The New York Times, Patricia Cohen explores the human ability for mind reading, a “layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking,” which she says is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill: “Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.” And studying how this capacity works “may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?” Cohen discusses research into theory of mind, which is “one person’s ability to interpret another person’s mental state and to pinpoint the source of a particular pice of information in order to assess its validity,” by scholars such as Jonathan Gottschall, Lisa Zunshine, Elaine Scarry, Michael Holquist, and Blakey Vermeule. And Cohen cites William Flesch, professor of English at Brandeis University, who argues, “It’s not that evolution gives us insight into fiction . . .  but that fiction gives us insight into evolution.”

Finally, over at the Scientific American website, John Horgan asks in a blog post, “Can Brain Scans Help Us Understand Homer?” About the application of neuroscience to literary criticism he warns:

The best bridgers of the two cultures combine respect for and knowledge of science with an awareness of science’s limits. Science is never weaker, more limited, than when it turns its attention to our own minds and behavior itself. One of the great paradoxes of modern science is that scientists can speak with more confidence about supernovas, neutron stars and the first moments of cosmic creation than they can about what is going on in their own skulls.

Be sure to read through the comments to this post, in which some of the researchers Horgan cites respond to his claims.

How or why it happens, it is undeniable that humans naturally appreciate stories. We tell stories to create our sense of self, to explain both to ourselves and to others who we are: “I am a person who. . . .” Ghost stories told around a campfire, family stories shared across a holiday dinner table, gossip whispered at the water cooler–all of these are testaments to our natural affinity for stories. Children who beg for “just one more” bedtime story aren’t simply jockeying to stay up later; they are genuinely enthralled by stories that keep them asking, “And then what happened? . . . And then what? . . . And then?”

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