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.