Thursday, July 12, 2012

Testing Fiction on the Brain

Elizabeth Zelvin

A March 2012 article in the New York Times reported that “new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience. Brain scans are revealing [that] when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters” our brains our stimulated, the experience promotes social learning in the same way as our real-life experiences do, and that we actually become more empathic as a result of reading novels.

“The novel,” according to the article, which sites several studies, “is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.”

We mystery lovers already know that. Readers of series return again and again to participate vicariously in not only the investigations but the social circles and life experiences of beloved characters. Many writers talk about how our characters talk to us and to each other in our heads and tell us how they want the current story to go, often against our design. (For me, it’s one reason I don’t outline. My characters aren’t interested in my outline.)

More good news: A 2010 study...found in preschool-age children [that] the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind,” which evidently means the capacity to “ ‘understand the complexities of social life’” and reflect on our mental and emotional states. This suggests that character-driven stories, which emphasize human relationships and are interested in emotions and succeed by evoking empathy, do a crucial job that cannot be done by a diet of action stories and plot-driven thrillers alone. This pleases me enormously as a writer of character-driven mysteries and a reader who is always hungry for novels with characters I can love.

The article also made a case for evocative language, citing studies that have found that parts of the cortex that perceive texture through touch become active when stimulated by metaphor. “Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like ‘The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands,’ did not.” The olfactory cortex is similarly aroused by words with strong odor associations, eg “perfume” or “coffee”.

I thought it might be fun to check random passages in the work of a few mystery writers who are known as excellent stylists to see how many cortex-zinging words and metaphors I could find. I chose P.D. James, the late Reginald Hill, and S.J. Rozan.

P.D. James (A Taste for Death, pp 92) was harder to do than I expected, because she makes so many cultural references in lieu of direct description. The cortex no doubt lights up at “the ceaseless grind and roar of [a particular London street} and “a fugitive sun glinted on leaves which were only now beginning to yellow and which hung in heavy swathes, almost motionless in the still air.” But I doubt that “one of the rare examples of Sir John Soan’s domestic architecture,” “the conventional Georgian houses on either side,” or “its neo-classical facade in Portland stone and brick” do the trick. And how about her comment that the house looks “almost arrogantly unique”? I would need the neuroscientist’s instruments to make that call.

Reginald Hill (The Woodcutter, p 259) also used more cultural metaphor than sensory metaphor, again, not what I expected. A family tomb is “the most prominent supultural monument, resembling in Hollins’s democratic eyes one of those blockhouses still visible on parts of the UK’s sea coast out of which the aged eyes of Dad’s Army peered in fearful expectation of seeing cohorts of Nazi storm-troopers goose-stepping out of the waves.” I can’t believe my Jewish cortex would be unmoved by those Nazi storm-troopers—but as writing, it’s a long way from “leathery hands.”

In S.J. Rozan’s work (The Shanghai Moon) as well, I had to pick my way past dialogue and cultural reference to find the cortical stimulants: “...traffic was at full stampede, giving out with honks and rumbles the way a herd of cattle might bellow and stamp” and “a tray of sweets, tiny teacups, and a gourd-shaped pot. A flowery fragrance filled the air.” (p. 79) “Anita opened the box, releasing a swirl of rosewood and age,” (p. 142) “the book’s once-rich leather cover, now mildew-spotted and flaking,” and “cradling the rosewood box” (p. 143).

My conclusion? I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s that fiction is so complex that it flitters away like butterflies from the grasping hands of even the most determined neuroscientist.


Sandra Parshall said...

The simpler sensory metaphors work best for me, and probably for most readers. I want to enter a world I can see, touch, smell. Elaborate, obscure references are wasted on my under-educated mind.

P.D. James's writing has become so formal, so "literary" and careful, that I get very little from it anymore. I hate to say it, but perhaps this is a function of age. (I also find that her depictions of younger characters don't ring true anymore.)

I think good fiction helps us understand ourselves and other people, and it teaches us how to live in the world.

Sheila Connolly said...

Oddly enough, the same point was made by the protagonist of the new show Perception. He said something like imagining an event evokes the same physiological responses in the brain as participating in the reality. Hear, hear for imagination!