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.”
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.
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.
What can neuroscience tell us about novels, poems and movies?
Can fiction help us develop real world cognitive skills?
Can writers exploit our mental weaknesses for our own good?