Your Brain on Literature

Sunday, November 12, 2023
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 11, 2021

What Is It

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. But can contemporary science really teach us anything about how novels, poems, and movies work? Do new understandings of the unconscious help us appreciate the brilliant magic tricks that writers pull off? And could a better picture of mental imagery inspire novelists to write differently? Josh and Ray pick the brain of Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain.

Listening Notes

What can neuroscience tell us about novels, poems, and movies? Can fiction help us develop real world cognitive skills? Josh thinks scientific studies have plenty to contribute to literature, like being able to see which areas of the brain light up when reading and explaining how writers are able to trick their readers. Ray insists that literature is a subjective experience, one in which our intuitions and feelings are just as powerful as science. 

The philosophers welcome David Eagleman, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine, to the show. David explains the difference between aphantasia and hyperphantasia, opposite ends of the spectrum of visualization that people experience when reading. In answer to Ray’s curiosity about its effect, David explains how different authors and writing styles can appeal to different audiences because of the way readers experience visual imagery in their heads. Josh asks about other types of mental imagery, prompting David to describe how everyone has a unique internal model of the world, even though we often assume that everyone shares our own model. Therefore, it is easy for writers, especially in mystery and thrillers, to lead us down a “garden path” and set us up for plot twists.   

In the last segment of the show, Josh, Ray, and David discuss the emotional effects of literature, including the benefits of cultivating empathy. Josh suggests that the brain is a parallel processing machine, which helps explain how our brains understand poetry. Ray considers the effects of first, second, and third-person perspective, which impact whether we experience a narrative as someone looking in or as the character himself. David states that anything that causes a perspective change can help us strengthen our empathy skills, not just reading novels. 


  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:51) → Holly J. McDede finds out what researchers are learning about children’s brains on literature. 

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:21) → Ian Shoales discusses how empathy and art have been changed by social media.



Josh Landy  
What can neuroscience tell us about novels, poems and movies?

Ray Briggs  
Can fiction help us develop real world cognitive skills?

Josh Landy  
Can writers exploit our mental weaknesses for our own good?

Comments (7)

Daniel's picture


Sunday, May 30, 2021 -- 4:47 PM

The concept of Catharsis is

The concept of Catharsis is relevant to fictional representation in literary form because it is characterized by involuntary response: laughter and tears, respectively. These responses in turn help to define how a story is understood: in comedy it ends well for the main characters; in tragedy is ends badly. Because any pre-existing world exists independently from our efforts and is understood in large part by means of the stories which are told about it, one can not be said to be able to choose the contents of these stories, (i.e. they are not stories we make up to tell ourselves), just as we are not free to choose and control our cathartic response to them. Is fictional literature then little more than the generation of a surrogate world, so that the reader doesn't have to deal with the real one? Or is it closer to a training of the mind for appropriate responses to the world prior to the full relevance of the latter for the reader, as Aristotle says of music near the end of the Politics? At the risk of making a false dichotomy, is fictional literature turned away from the world, as an escape from it? Or is it turned towards the world, as a preparation for it? How might cognitive science approach the question, in the event such a consideration would be relevant in that area at all?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, June 10, 2021 -- 9:43 PM

If the human brain is such a

If the human brain is such a marvel, why in near-term evolutionary time is it getting smaller? If language is such a marvel, why are fewer languages spoken today than 100, 200, and 1,000 years ago? How come large mammals disappear whenever prehistoric humans appear? Who killed the Neanderthals and why? Can David Eagleman explain why Neanderthal genes are different when spliced in brain organoids? Can neuroscience explain the difference in innervation in these experiments?

I don't think Dr. Eagleman or anyone has sufficient answers to these questions that rise above speculation. But David has a better shot than most. So let me ask here. Is readership good? Is it in decline? Is it changing? How, why, or why not?

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Will humans be able to intuit a good story tens of thousands of years after we told the first one? It would seem no. It would seem that more information is making for more sources and media formats and the congregation of thought around poor ones.

Is language the brain's attempt to understand itself? Is language a social entity all and of itself? In either case, do we want to have this discussion in English? ʻAʻole anei ʻoe e noʻonoʻo i ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi? (Wouldn't you rather be thinking in Hawaiian?)

Questions for Dr. Eagleman. What are dyslexia and ADHD? What is deep reading? Can one be encouraged and the other not? Why can't the brain adapt to mental illness and cure/make sense of itself as it does sound from the leads of a cochlear implant? What can we do for our kids and ourselves to live more deeply?

I like an excellent p-value, but I am not confident science can help me find baby shoes never worn on Craigslist with more meaning than Charles Bukowski imparts explaining his interest in women.

Daniel's picture


Wednesday, June 30, 2021 -- 8:07 PM

Is it possible to summarize

Is it possible to summarize that? Some of the questions seem like they could be readily answered by your own means, especially the ones in the first paragraph on anthropological subjects. The rest appears to be an attempt at readable nonsense, but what do I know? --Thanks by the way for the Bukowski- reference. I hadn't yet heard of him and his work looks interesting.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, July 1, 2021 -- 9:36 AM

Genius might be the ability

Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.
-C. Bukowski

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, July 8, 2021 -- 9:13 AM

This show did not go where I

This show did not go where I thought it would. The decline of readership is a social brain function and largely driven by changes in our modes of reading. There are far too few scientists studying this. I was hoping to hear more on that. I think the decline is actually a quickening, but I would like to hear someone else say that.

I had not heard the study on audible books but I look forward to finding it. I too am surprised by that finding as my method is so different doing one or the other.

I will read on.

Daniel's picture


Saturday, July 10, 2021 -- 10:05 PM

The phrase "audible books"

The phrase "audible books" may sound a bit like MIT Professor Noam Chomsky's famous phrase "colorless green ideas", since reading a book and hearing one read are very different kinds of activities. For as you suggest, reading could be seen primarily as a cognitive response to the story-stimulus, since anticipating its outcome on the basis of what has already been read constitutes in some sense the real work of the fictive representation, the quantity of which in cases of wide readership can not compare to the work of a single individual as author of the work; which is closer to the meaning the term logos had for the Greeks. The question subsequently arises whether reading constitutes a literary Nominalism independent of the story, and indeed conceivable independently even without one, or if the story itself can be described in terms of a literary Realism, existing on its own, for which readers are mere accidents of monograph distribution.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, July 17, 2021 -- 6:50 AM

Looking forward to reading

Looking forward to reading Pollan's new book: This is Your Mind on Plants. About psychedelics. Never got heavily into such things. No hard drugs. Pollan is younger than I and has written of such matters before. Philosophy takes many roads...