Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why Read Fiction?

From TV to film, video games to cartoons, with so many story-telling entertainment media venues available… why read a book, why waste your time? Isn't it easier to wait for the movie of some blockbuster story? Are the novel and short story passé, a doomed media?

We've all heard the benefits of reading fiction for years, probably since the first novels were marketed: escapism, mind travel, relaxation, stress relief, and engagement of the imagination. Don't these other venues do the same? Probably. So why read a book? Because reading words does something better than any of the other image-based story-telling media do. Reading strengthens the brain circuitry through exercise. Reading gives the brain a hi-powered workout. It also helps the reader become more socially adjusted, and might even offer a cure for obesity.

New research has provided evidence reading does much more than just entertain the reader. It seems reading stimulates more than the language regions of the brain. According to Anne Murphy Paul in an article for the New York Times (Your Brain on Fiction), scientific studies conducted in Spain and published in NeuroImage show our sensory and motor skill centers, indeed the whole brain, become involved in conceptualizing words, which is what makes submersion in fictional possible. Words feel so real. Another study shows how metaphoric language excites the brain: "Researchers have found that textural metaphors-phrases such as "soft-hearted"-turn on a part of the brain that's important to the sense of touch. The result may help resolve a long-standing controversy over how the brain understands metaphors and may offer scientists a new way to study how different brain regions communicate" (Metaphors Make Brains Touchy Feely). Fiction, it seems, produces powerful brain chemistry.

Reading also enables a person to learn social skills, empathy, and exercise their imagination. Again in "Your Brain on Fiction," writer Annie Murphy Paul cites evidence from psychological studies by a Doctor Mar showed reading fiction uses many of the same process regions of the brain used in social interactions. The conclusion relates to how reading helps individuals become better with their social interactions with other people in reality. Fiction readers, more so than non-fiction readers, seem to be more empathetic and more socially adjusted. Dr. Mar found this also true in pre-school children. The more stories read to this age group, the better their coping skills (Your Brain on Fiction).

Lastly, reading appropriate literature can help us develop good habits. A recent study of obese girls already in weight-control programs at Duke Children's Hospital indicated those who read a specifically recommended novel, Lake Rescue (Beacon Street Press), had a greater reduction in their body mass index numbers than the non-reading group (Reading helps obese children lose weight ).

This is strong proof reading is more than just entertainment, stress relief, and escapism, all though those are strong motivators. We knew the outward benefits of reading, now we are beginning to understand the inner benefits, those unseen, mind-expanding, brain exercising changes. More research into the brain-social-physical-reading connection will probably show other benefits to fiction. In the meantime, aren't you glad you read?