Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Literary Brain: The Neuroscience of Stories

It is not too much to say that I really like The Hobbit. Somewhere in my house is my original copy of the book. A ratty paperback that is water-warped and ragged from being carried to school in opposition of parental threats, stolen and kicked around by bullies on a playground, and tossed in countless garbage cans by teachers who thought they knew better about literature. (Yes, really.) It was even dropped in the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and baked dry in the hot Arizona sun. The spine has long ago been replaced by duct tape and there are over forty tick marks on the inside of the back cover, a younger self's record of reading Tolkien's story of a mousy man turned hero.

This is not about the upcoming movies or even about the book. This is about the stories that consume us and the strange neurochemistry of storytelling.

On a recent episode of Mythbusters (currently available for watching online), where the team did some interesting experiments with an FMRI, seeking to understand whether or not we really only use 10% of our brain. They hooked one of the team up to various machines and had him do math problems and puzzles and tell stories. Nothing they did fired more parts of the brain at once than telling a story.

I wish they had measured while reading a story, but there's only so much you can fit into the time constraints of a TV show.

Thankfully, we don't have to rely on the Mythbusters for all of our scientific data about brain activity and stories. At Michigan State University, there's a project underway to understand the state of mind that leads me and others to get immersed in that world of words, that book that I read differently than all others before it, and possibly since.  It's about what it is about some books that so grab us that we Read Them Differently.

There are some books that just suck you in to their worlds. Some characters that come to us at a crucial time in our development as people and consume us whole. In one big literary gulp, we go down the word gullet, the opinions of teachers, parents, and peers be damned.  For me it was the Hobbit and for others Pride & Prejudice, but whatever your poison, be it Harry Potter or Twilight, the effect is the same.

Recently, researchers have been trying to pinpoint how this works, when and how the story can overtake everything else by monitoring the brain activity of people as they read. And while they have learned a thing or two about the immersive nature of a great book, the most interesting things they've found -- as least for me -- is about the obsessive nature of the reader and the way that a brain falls into a story and doesn't want to come out.

We should all be so lucky as to tell that kind of story.

Here's an interview with Michigan State Professor Natalie Phillips, who is a bit obsessive about Jane Austen via NPR.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).