I have always read lots of books, 90% of them fiction. Well, to be honest, probably 95%. I have friends who read mostly non-fiction, and I have been mildly hard on myself about that: they must be more highbrow, serious and intellectual than I am, right? I was relieved (and felt not a little righteous) when I ran across and read a 2012 article from the New York Times called “Your Brain on Fiction.”
What happens in our heads when we’re reading fiction? Using the technology now available to us, researchers have found that our brains are very active when we read, and in unexpected ways. In essence, “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” In other words, reading produces a simulation of reality, allowing us to immerse ourselves in situations foreign to us and see the world through others’ eyes.
Words are powerful, and our brains respond to descriptions and interactions as if we are inhabiting the world we’re reading about. Specific parts of the reader’s brain that “light up” in response to stimuli in their own world do the same when they read about what the characters are doing and experiencing. Words like “perfume” and “coffee” light up the olfactory cortex, descriptive language about texture activates the sensory cortex for touch, and words that describe motion stimulate regions of the motor cortex.
[Hmmm, wouldn’t it be great if we could read about someone exercising fanatically and get the health benefits? Well, on second thought, if it entailed reading a second-by-second account of the experience in real time, I would lose interest very quickly. Never mind.]
Not surprisingly, vivid vocabulary and metaphor seem to intensify this phenomenon. I’m guessing that every reader is aware of what type of writing best lights up their brain, making it totally immersive and pleasurable. Perhaps this is a personal thing. For me, light reading can be entertaining, but books by masterful writers engage me totally, thus creating more intense simulations of reality.
I can easily be perceived as a snob, because some books that are wildly popular (including a recent Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner) leave me cold. I can’t quite explain why — and I don’t bring it up when people rave about this book. Clearly, it lit up the brains of those who chose the winner. To each their own. I have reached an age when I give myself permission NOT to finish books that don’t grab me, even if they are prize-winners. What a relief!
Consider how all this applies to kids’ reading. Little ones need to have books read to them, the more the better. And yes, Goodnight Moon, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, and many others are typically very appealing to them and certainly have their place. But don’t underestimate children — they are intrigued by stories that they may not fully comprehend, and they absorb language that builds their capacity and interest in learning new words and understanding the world.
Kids who are still in the “learning to read” phase (generally grades K-3) are often not able to catch meaning and get engaged if simply decoding the words takes up all their “brain space,” so rich description and vocabulary won’t necessarily be pleasurable. I’m thrilled when they read anything, including whatever series is popular at the time. (For my kids, it was Goosebumps — VERY formulaic, with no character development at all.) This does NOT mean they shouldn’t be exposed to more complex, literary books by hearing them read aloud. A 6th-grade student of mine recently chose a Goosebumps book for a book report, but recounted to me at each session what had happened in the book his teacher was reading to the class: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. (An excellent alternative to hearing a parent or teacher read is to listen to audiobooks — great for road trips!)
I believe that family reading should extend well beyond when kids can read books on their own. In that way, their range of vicarious experiences widens enormously. My husband, kids and I fondly remember reading Summer of the Monkeys, by Wilson Rawls, who also wrote Where the Red Fern Grows, the classic tear-jerker in which (spoiler alert — the dog dies) together when Sam and Katie were around 5 and 6. The language was so rich, and the plot so exciting and funny that we looked forward to reading time as much as they did.
So, it turns out that reading fiction is anything BUT lowbrow. It broadens horizons, allows us to experience far more than is possible in one lifetime, and helps us realize that the sensibilities of our native culture are neither universal nor superior. In other words, it develops EMPATHY, a quality that is so needed today. If you are, like me, in love with fiction, read on! Enjoy the stories, the characters, the language. You are improving yourself and becoming more open to others.