Cognitive science has revolutionized our understanding of the brain and how it functions. Researchers have even used fMRI to detect differences in the way people engage with literature.
What can neuroscience tell us about novels, poems, and plays? Can fiction help us develop real-world cognitive skills? And can writers exploit our mental weaknesses—for our own good? These are some of the questions we'll be asking on this week’s show, “Your Brain on Literature.”
I think readers and writers of literature have a lot to learn from today’s sciences of mind. And this week’s guest, neuroscientist David Eagleman, does too. David and I recently taught a class together called “Literature and the Brain,” and we looked at all kinds of fascinating ideas coming from the world of neuroscience and empirical psychology.
There are so many wonderful results and insights to discuss. For example, there’s Lisa Zunshine’s brilliant theory that reading novels can make us better at tracking social information and at inferring other people’s mental states from their behavior. And then there’s a set of cognitive biases—that is, standard kinds of mistakes the human brain makes—that novelists, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters can exploit, just as stage magicians exploit our selective attention to pull off their tricks. To put it as a slogan, “cognitive biases are a writer’s best friend!”
These biases of ours allow works of literature to surprise us, to delight us, to tickle our funny-bones (via “garden path” effects), to guide our experience (via “priming”), and to keep us engaged. Engaged long enough, if Zunshine and others are right, to do us some pretty important cognitive favors.
But cognitive biases can also be the target of literary works. Consider this cool finding: readers from one social group are more likely to empathize with a character from another social group if the identity of that character is revealed relatively late in the story. (Toni Morrison did this in some of her fiction, and explained why she did so in a wonderful essay.) In cases like that, a reader might start with a harmful bias and end up, all being well, with that bias being reduced or even removed.
And that’s not to mention all the novels, poems, plays, and movies that have been directly inspired by developments in neuroscience. Think, for example, of the novels we’ve seen recently that explore various kinds of mind—like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for the autism spectrum, Motherless Brooklyn for Tourette’s, Freshwater for Dissociative Identity Disorder, The Echo Maker for capgras, and Ian McEwan’s Saturday (my favorite so far) for Huntington’s—or other developments in psychology, like Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (film version: Arrival), which draws brilliantly on the work of Lera Boroditsky and others.
Now you might worry, of course, that science has a dangerous tendency to overgeneralize. An important recent book by Joseph Henrich points out, wittily, that many test subjects for psychology experiments are “W.E.I.R.D.”: that is, they come from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies, like the United States. That’s a fair critique—but many of the most interesting experimental results talk precisely about the differences among communities. Lera Boroditsky’s work, for example, shows us how national languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic…) exert a subtle influence over the way we think. That being the case, it really does matter what language you read a book in. Perhaps reading poetry in a second language could even cultivate an ability to see the world in a new way.
Today’s psychologists are interested in other differences, too: not just differences at the broad level of linguistic areas but local differences, the kind you might even see between two siblings in the same family. Here’s one: what do you visualize when you read a novel? That probably depends on the novel and on your mode of reading (screen, paper, or audiobook? skimming or deep-diving? reading for fun or for class?). But it also depends on what kind of visualizer you are. Some people “see” individual objects in great detail; others are likely to picture configurations in space; and others still don’t see images at all. What do you see when you read?
Maybe we’ll find out what our guest David Eagleman sees when we talk to him this week. Tune in for what will be a great discussion!