Thursday, August 14, 2008

You've been warned

There's an interesting article in New Scientist, "The science of fiction," by Keith Oatley. For those who aren't subscribers (they're doing a special offer at the moment--seriously, seriously cheap, go take a look), here's a reasonable precis from thestar.com:

"For the first time in history there is now scientific evidence that reading fiction has psychological benefits," writes Keith Oatley in New Scientist. Oatley is a professor of psychology and the leader of the Toronto team. He is also an award-winning novelist (The Case of Emily V.). On the phone from the University of Toronto, he explains that reading fiction appears to stimulate parts of the brain that govern empathy. "What you're doing when you're reading fiction is you're allowing yourself to become another person for a short period of time ... It loosens up your personality, your rigidities."

Oatley got a bunch o' people to read Chekhov, and from his experiments (just go read the article, so I don't have to lay it all out here) he concludes that reading fiction improves the reader's social intelligence. To which I say, Well, yeah. I say, Duh. I say, Ya think? Consider your friends. Toll through them in your mind. I bet you a beer that the ones you like best are the ones who read for fun. They're kinder, wiser, more empathetic. (Plus reading is, y'know, delicious, which makes a person happier and therefore more pleasant to be around. How delicious? Read "Doing it for Pleasure.")

Anyway, back to the articles. Neither uses the phrase "mirror neurons," but I bet a functional MRI of those people reading Chekhov would show fireworks going on in the inferior parietal cortex.

There's significant research to show mirror neurons are probably the governing factor in the development of empathy. We learn from watching others; we learn how they think, what they feel, what they might do next. It's almost as good as having the experience ourselves. In fact, in a way, it is having the experience ourselves. Aud explains (to her self-defense students, in Always) how and why mirror neurons are crucial to our survival:

"You've probably all seen the way children imitate things to understand them. They'll pretend to roll out a pie crust right along with you, they make noises and pretend to change gears as you drive. This happens in your brain, too. When we see someone pick up a bottle, a whole set of nerve fibers, called mirror neurons, pretend to be picking up the bottle, too. Whether actually picking up the bottle or just watching someone do it, those neurons fire in the same pattern. Your body understands intimately how it feels. So when I shift grip, your brain shifts grip, too. And these mirror neurons are hooked into your limbic system, to the part of your brain that handles emotions. So your brain knows what it means when I'm turning the bottle like that. You know, deep down, in that intuitive part of you, what's going on, in a way that your conscious mind probably doesn't."

[...]

"You can look it up when you go home. For now, think of the mirror neurons as recreating the experience of others inside ourselves. They put us in the shoes of those others. We feel others' actions and sensations in our own cortex, in our own body, as though we ourselves are having those sensations, doing those things. In a very real way, we are doing those things. Think of your mirror neurons, your hunches, your intuition as a powerful advisor, an interpreter."

Recreating the experience of others inside ourselves gives us experience we might not have had otherwise. When we read about a woman choosing to hit someone, to some degree we experience that choice--and its consequences--ourselves. We learn from it. Reading fiction is a Good Thing.

But only good fiction. Good fiction is the stuff that doesn't traffic in cliche, that puts particular people in particular situations and describes how they feel, what they see (and hear and taste), how they respond, and what the consequences are. This is why, a year ago, I wrote a rant, which I'll share with you now:

When I write, dear reader, I don't want to build a careful tale for you to discuss with a smile in a sunny place, I want to own you. I don't want to be The New TV Series, I want to be pornography: to thrill you so hard you're ashamed but can't help yourself crawling back for more.

I want to write a whole novel that invades you. I want to control what you think and feel, to put you right there, right then, killing and being killed, fucking and being fucked, cooking and starving, drinking and thinking, barely surviving and absolutely thriving. I want to give you a life you've never had, change the one you live.

How? I will take control of your mirror neurons. I will give you tastes and textures, torments and terrain you might never find in your real life. I will take you, sweep you off your feet, own you. For a while. For a while when you're lost in my book you will be somewhere else, somewhen else, someone else.

I control the horizontal, I control the vertical. Sit back, relax, enjoy. When you're done, take a breath, smoke a cigarette, figure out who you are now, and come back for more.

It's more than a rant, actually, it's a dedication. A vow: with my next novel, I'm going to run my software on your hardware. You've been warned.


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44 comments:

  1. Really, really good information, but better yet, this is a wonderful blog. Sorry, but I tend to drool a bit when I see really good writing and you make me drool a lot.

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  2. Ditto about the drooling. I'd love to hear some of the prose you recap here on one of the Friday treats. Like the paragraph that starts with: "I want to write a whole novel that invades you..." The rhythm is perfect for spoken word. And the info contained in this post. So interesting. Oh, and I just subscribed to New Scientist. They better give you a commission, because I'm sure I won't be the only one.

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  3. .gulp.
    .drool.

    I second and third both the above posts. I've also added New Scientist to my subscription wish list.

    I consider myself happily warned.

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  4. I've been reading New Scientist for years. Sometimes they're so ahead they make my head hurt :)

    Evecho

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  5. pierce, karina, janine, I love going all ranty pajamas like this. It's pure self-indulgence; it gives me a rush. And when I mean every.single.word it gives me double delight. I'm glad you liked it.

    evecho, I love New Scientist. I've tried Science News (great info, terrible writing), Scientific American (boring) and I think NS is best. I also really like the science bits in the Economist.

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  6. Well, thanks for the warning. :) I enjoy your rants tremendously. But I didn't really need the warning; I've already experienced you jacking into my hardware.... I'm ready for the next wild ride whenever you get it ready. Even better that it's such a different world.

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  7. I can't tell you how exciting it is to commit, to publicly stab my dagger in the table. Do or die.

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  8. Yes, your excitement is palpable. Exquisite. Contagious.

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  9. (Nicola): "I will give you tastes and textures, torments and terrain you might never find in your real life. I will take you, sweep you off your feet, own you. For a while. For a while when you're lost in my book you will be somewhere else, somewhen else, someone else."

    Now THAT is a passionate oath!

    And if Hild of Whitby is the novel you "were born to write", I consider myself duly forewarned. I hope my neurons can withstand the surge. :)

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  10. Hey, if I fuse your neurons, you can grow more :)

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  11. This is what I'm doing my dissertation on.

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  12. This being fused neurons, mirror neurons, maniacal writers? Tell me more.

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  13. "This" specifically being how fiction can affect the brain. More specifically, fantasy and science fiction can get into the blood through emotion. Even more specifically, Frankenstein, Goblin Market, and Dracula as works addressing social issues in 19th-century Britain--how their writers used emotional content and those very neural mechanisms to attempt to reach readers.

    I have the first chapter drafted, if you'd like a look. It's not perfect, but it's mostly there.

    BTW, I'm the person who asked you about immigration lawyers a while back.

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  14. *Incidentally, now you get a citation as the first writer that I know of to actually declare an intention to use neurophysiology knowingly.

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  15. stacie, hey there--I thought your name rang a bell. I hope the immigration stuff is going well. Oooh, yes, I'd love to get a look at that dissertation.

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  16. Let me have a look and make sure there's nothing absolutely stupid in it. My committee gave me a hard time over the prospectus, to the point that I was considering scrapping some of the most interesting parts--the stuff having to do with mirror neurons and the like.

    So really, seeing your blog and the NS article gives me a bit of hope. My thesis isn't exactly the same, but I feel very vindicated nonetheless.

    The immigration stuff isn't going anywhere, yet. We thought J. would get into the MA program at YSU, but that's on hold due to the different grading systems--they had to evaluate her transcripts, and the results haven't come back. So we've decided to start saving up to speak to that lawyer, but it will be a longish while on my wages before we can afford to even drop her a postcard.

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  17. It sounds as though thesis committees can be as clueless as editors--they miss the point, sometimes. But I'm delighted my post helped you stick to your guns.

    Hang in there with the immigration stuff. It gets hard, but as long as you and your sweetie are in agreement, it'll all work out somehow.

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  18. Just heard a podcast on technation with Dr. Marco Iacaboni who wrote The Neuroscience of Human Relationships. All about mirror neurons and such.

    http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail3750.html

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  19. Fascinating, inspiring article there from the New Scientist, but lemme tell ya, your rant was amazing.

    And "I'm going to run my software on your hardware"? Oh shit, that was freaking perfect. Thanks for sharing that.

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  20. John, that was an *excellent* link, thank you. Fascinating info on the possible future uses of the knowledge of mirror neurones, in terms of both practical application (political polling) and theorising (evolutionary biology). Wow. Lots to think about.

    michaeljasper, glad you liked the rant :) It's tricky, sometimes, deciding which of my rants to share and which to keep private. But this one felt more true every day and so eventually I couldn't stand keeping it quiet...

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  21. I appreciated that link too. Looks like an interesting book. Odd that they link to a different book (The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain), but that book looks pretty interesting as well. Sounds like he talks about mirror neurons in context with other social aspects of the brain. I'm pretty interested in hearing what he's got to say about childhood traumas and their effects on mirror neurons and also on memory -- and how it's possible to encourage neuron development when we are older.

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  22. If there's an answer to 'how can we fix it?' that would be amazing.

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  23. ...and I keep coming back for more.

    I wrote "Nine Inch Notions" with you and Kelley in mind. The "she" in it is "story", and she belongs to you. I hope you like it even though I'm pretty convinced that Shakespeare hates it.

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  24. I like it. Fuck Shakespeare. (Or not. He should be so lucky...)

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  25. Thank you. :-) I'm taking a screenshot of this. I'll keep it with the other things that make me smile.

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  26. wow this is like a motivation site to keep reading

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  27. realmcover, pepito, I'm very fond of this one :)

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  28. Perfect timing - your book Slow River just arrived and I can't wait to be mentally and emotionally taken over. You might be interested to know that there have been a few documentaries on tv here in UK very recently all about the significance of reading and Professor [Baroness] Susan Greenfield was on it - can't remember the other experts and they have shown that taxi drivers who learn the knowledge have enlarged hypothalmuses and that also that reading increases the number of neural networks. Greenfield was concerned that playing computer games did not teach empathy in the same way as reading a novel does and the game player remains emotionally detached from the characters. But other experts thought otherwise and cited a game where the aim of the game is to save a girl and the soldier has to physically lead her out of the wreckage and battlefield by the hand. But in general the programme simply couldn't stress strongly enough how important reading is.

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  29. Do let me know what you think of SR -- and if you have questions, feel free to ask them: asknicola2 at nicolagriffith dot com.

    I don't play video games, but I'm not convinced that doing, on screen, is the same as dwelling, in one's mind.

    Which TV channel was it? Do they stream their programming?

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  30. I think it was Channel 4 - I shall check it out and get back to you - it may have been BBC. They both have streaming channel options but I am not sure they work outside UK

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  31. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ipm/2008/08/zaphappy_brains_is_the_interne.shtml

    It was the BBC originally a tv programme which I can't find a link to right now but meantime here is a spinoff radio interview with Baroness Susan Greenfield - hope it works from outside USA. Hope you find it interesting - Prof Susan Greenfield is one of my heros - she is stunningly attractive and she has brains too!! Very articulate woman - I love strong headed women!!

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  32. Thanks for that link. I imagine that a lot of what she says falls on deaf ears*--because most of the people who need to hear what's she's saying are incapable of doing so.

    I think her worries are valid.

    [* It's a metaphor. No slur intended to any members of the Deaf or hard-of-hearing community.]

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  33. I think I shall try to get Susan Greenfield's latest book where many of her ideas are expanded. I'm glad that someone is asking those kinds of questions even if the actual research still needs to be done to find out exactly what is going on. In the radio interview Susan Greenfield also asks the question why children on ritalin are on the increase. I notice that you are a New Scientist subscriber - did you see the recent article on www.newscientist.com about how poor sleep patterns may actually cause mental illness instead of the other way around? I found it fascinating.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126962.100-are-bad-sleeping-habits-driving-us-mad.html

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  34. I saw that, yes. And thought, Duh! Been thinking that a lot lately :)

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  35. I have been hunting to find the actual tv programme about reading - it was called Why Reading Matters by the BBC and is no longer available to watch again but maybe it will come up again - it was hosted by Rita Carter I believe and showed that newer technology proves how invaluable reading is and what extraordinary effects it can have on the brain and it's part of a series of BBC programmes all about the importance of reading

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  36. Although Greenfield gives the internet a bad press one thing I do love about it - is that you can actually get to talk to the novelists you read so it is an extension of the reading process. Having, for so long, gone the classical route reading only long dead authors I find this a tremendous privilege. And while some writers just put all their creativity into their art, some, like yourself, Nicola, seem to be teeming with interesting ideas on and off the page!! Now I must break off to read your latest blog about the leopard found in USA!!

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  38. I loved reading your post until I was stopped in my tracks by this "I want to be pornography: to thrill you so hard you're ashamed but can't help yourself crawling back for more."

    Think about a woman reading this who was/is a victim of the porn industry, one of the many women tortured, battered, enslaved, etc. Think of the children used for porn.

    Or think of the many women who have partners who use porn then want to mimic what they see in porn. Women who thought they were loved and valued and now find their partner wishes to degrade them as a game.

    Porn is degrading to women and hurtful to women. I also read another post where you objected to the use of the word "lame." I agree with you on that as I also agree with the use of the word "gay." I suggest that you reconsider the use of the idea of porn, the meaning of porn as "sexy," "thrilling," "irresistable" or "liberating," even.

    Certainly a novel about porn could be written. Porn as a crime that involves purchasing other humans as slaves, including children. This would be a novel about horror and abuse. But it would not be a novel about something thrilling or sexy. It could be a novel about the horrors of enslavement and degradation of victims of incest or drug addiction. Hopefully their tormentors will be brought to justice and their suffering seen as the suffering of any human who is incested or addicted.

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  39. KatieS, 'pornography', to me, is a relative term, not absolute. It does not have to involve any exploited people. It is not necessarily evil. But it does have to thrill vicariously.

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  40. Nicola, I see that as inconsistent with your views on words such as "lame" and "gay." I know other lesbians who may use the term "gay" and other people with disabilities who may use the term "lame." Their intent is not meanness, and even Webster's has alternative meanings for these words. They may even use them in groups where the majority of their listeners do not see any harm in them. Still, I do not use them and do not like them. I will let people know this if they use them around me, as have you.

    Just because some porn may be thought not to involve exploited people, the degree of exploitation, up to and including murder and slavery, is well known and has a strong association with porn. There is also "kiddie porn" for pedophiles. It does thrill vicariously in all these ways and by design, to addict people to its use. There is a large literature in the field of psychology that documents its harm.

    It does involve severely exploited people. It generally also involves degrading (not just sexual) images of women. It is evil as a concept because of this. You cannot separate the evilness of the porn out. When I hear it used in the way you do, it makes me cringe. Far more than the terms you have objected to, both of which apply to me personally.

    Obviously, I think you should reconsider your position. I have only read two posts on your blog, so I don't know the extent of your defense of the idea of porn as ok. Exploitation is central to porn.

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  41. KatieS, I hear what you're saying: to you, porn means the porn industry which, as we all know, is exploitative (to put it mildly). For you, the notion of porn, that is--to me--vicarious extra somatic delivery of sexual thrill, is inextricably entwined with that industry. I find I'm guilty of assuming that everyone who reads this blog should know that's not what I meant. From your response this is clearly not the case. So: my 'hey, you should know I don't mean it that way' is clearly an inadequate position.

    I'm going to go ponder what that means for this specific situation. I suspect I'll rewrite the post.

    Meanwhile, I'm sorry for upsetting you. I know what it's like to suddenly feel slapped from left field.

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  42. Yes, it did feel that way. I'm very glad you are rethinking it. I'll look forward to the rewrite.

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  43. Paging Tristan Taormino... Paging Dr. Taormino... Censorship emergency, stat!

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