Consider this your permission to get serious about reading fiction. If you are a bookworm like me, you no longer need to feel guilty when you put down one of your “serious” books to pick up a work of fiction because new research is proving that those of us who read fiction might be better equipped to understand humans and the way we communicate. To prove our claim that reading fiction is serious work, we need to take a closer look at how our brains process language.
Have you ever felt transported to another time or place when reading fiction? There’s a good reason for that. Neuroscientists tell us that reading and listening to fiction serves as a kind of virtual reality, simulating conflict and human emotion, and giving us insight into situations that we might encounter in our real lives. This means that those people who read fiction have a larger body of data to draw from when analyzing their audiences, something we know to be critically important for speakers. The New York Times cites the work of psychologist Raymond Mar who analyzed 86 fMRI studies and found “substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals . . . Narratives offer a unique opportunity to . . . identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.” In other words, fiction allows us to study many different kinds of people and situations. That means we can craft better presentations and more fully predict how varied audience members might react to our presentation simply because we’ve read about people in the virtual reality of fiction.
Increased Brain Activity
People who read fiction are not only exposed to more data through simulated situations, we are also exposed to more descriptive language which results in more active brain function. At the end of the last century, new technology allowed scientists to more precisely study how the human brain responds to language. And what they found was fascinating. In order to increase activity in the brain, communicators only needed to use words that were more heavily tied to our senses. In other words, the kind of descriptive language we find in fiction and stories. Researcher and author Benjamin Bergan says that “if someone read a sentence like, ‘the shortstop threw the ball to first base,’ parts of the brain dedicated to vision and movement would light up . . . [because] the brain appears to be taking words, which are just arbitrary symbols, and translating them into things we can see or hear or do.”
Brain imaging research at Emory University demonstrated similar findings. In this particular study, scientists watched what happened when the brain was exposed to textural metaphors like “a rough day.” They found that these types of metaphors stimulated a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch. However, when a similar description like “a difficult day” was used, that region was not activated. Reading works of fiction with their detailed descriptions can increase brain activity, even outside of the regions more traditionally associated with language use.
So the next time you reach for a work of fiction, I hope you do so without guilt. After all, you’ve got science backing you up. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird might help you understand human emotion in a new way. Reading Pride and Prejudice might make you a better communicator. Reading a series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games might inspire you to use more descriptive language.
And once you’ve finished the serious work of reading fiction, bring elements from those stories into your presentations and speeches. Transport your audience members. Light their brains up with descriptive language. Appeal to them as a fiction writer might, taking them beyond the walls of the boardroom, classroom, or auditorium.
Reading fiction is just one of the ways you can become a better speaker. To learn our results-driven methods for achieving presentation greatness, register now for our all-new, online course.