Embodied Semantics (Your Brain on Novels)

Connecting the novel The Red and the Black with brain research and empathy.

What happens when we read a novel?  In one of my favorite novels, The Red and the Black, written by Stendhal and set in the 1800’s, the subject of reading and especially of reading novels is present throughout the book.

Julien Sorel, the protagonist, is in the service of a bourgeois family as a tutor for the children.  The father emphatically declares to his wife, “He [Julien] never reads novels. I’ve made sure of that.”  The popular belief was that reading novels would lead people astray into improper behavior.  The author describes one of the female characters as “genuinely virtuous…never looking to novels for examples on which to model her conduct.”

What were they onto back in the nineteenth century, attributing such power to reading novels? girl-reading1

As it turns out, they instinctively knew what brain researchers now are finding out.  Reading a novel changes the brain in a number of ways, and as the brain changes so changes the behavior.

Reports from several studies of the brain changes resulting from reading novels have been published in the past 10 years, with the latest one I know of coming out in January of this year from Emory University.  In general terms these studies are showing the following kinds of brain and behavior changes:

  • Reading fiction tends to make you more comfortable with ambiguity, an attitude that allows for more creativity thinking.
  • The brain changes associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.  We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now they are seeing that something may also be happening biologically.  This is called embodied semantics.
  • Engagement with fictional narratives provides one with information about the social world, exposing us to worlds outside their own and increasing our empathy.
  • Avid readers of fiction were far more socially adept than avid readers of non-fiction.

In summary it sure sounds like good novels about life and human experience that we read and reflect upon can broaden our imagination and make us more sensitive and empathic.  It sure sounds like reading novels has the potential to make us better human beings than a whole lot of the self-help books out there and better in our workplaces than a whole lot of the business books out there.man reading

This idea really hits home to me when I think about the past twelve posts I’ve written.  All but two of them have in some way been about connecting fiction (novels and some films) to a deeper understanding of the human experience.

Reading The Red and the Black or The Lord of the Rings or A Tale of Two Cities or any quality classic or modern novel is going to help me to be empathic more than reading a self-help business book called How to Become More Empathic at Work could ever do.  And it will sure be a lot more fun.

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