Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reading distinguishes us from other animals

At the end of December the Guardian ran a story about reading and empathy:

Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that "readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative". The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a new mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways.

The discovery that our brains are physically changed by the experience of reading is something many of us will understand instinctively, as we think back to the way an extraordinary book had a transformative effect on the way we viewed the world. This transformation only takes place when we lose ourselves in a book, abandoning the emotional and mental chatter of the real world. That's why studies have found this kind of deep reading makes us more empathetic, or as Nicholas Carr puts it in his essay, The Dreams of Readers, "more alert to the inner lives of others".

This is significant because recent scientific research has also found a dramatic fall in empathy among teenagers in advanced western cultures.

I've talked about this in often in my essays, particularly in "As We Mean to Go On," which I wrote with Kelley, about how it was books that us together:

Books--the ones Kelley and I had read, the ones we wanted to write--drew us to the place where we would meet, and made it possible for us to understand each other when we got there. We were born only nine days apart, but also eight thousand miles, on different continents and to different cultures. Our meeting and life together should have been one long cultural car crash, but though there are times when our common language puzzles us extremely, books have formed for us a parallel universe, a world where we learnt the same things at the same time from the same characters, though sometimes with distinctly different flavours.

I've also written about reading: how it saves us, how it makes us, fortifies us, helps us find each other. This is from "Doing It For Pleasure":

Yet when I read, part of my pleasure is the knowledge that others have read the same words and been amused, educated, delighted, vindicated or connected, and I feel part of something bigger and richer and intensely exciting. When I put the book down, I go in search of a friend to talk to about the ideas or characters or places I've discovered. All my friends are readers. I wouldn't have it any other way; readers are, in my opinion, better people for having spent much of their lives being amused, educated, delighted, vindicated and connected.

Reading is the gateway to so many things that helps makes it possible for seven billion people to live together on one planet. Literature is the great extra-somatic keeper of our knowledge of what it is to be human. Reading elevates us. We read to be our best selves.

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