Brains on Fiction


“What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

“Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas.”

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

“The novel, of course, 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.”

“Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”


The Feeling of Learning


“Human tutors—teachers who work closely with students, one on one—are unrivaled in their ability to promote deep and lasting learning. Education researchers have known this for more than 30 years, but until recently they haven’t paid much attention to one important reason why tutoring is so effective: the management of emotion. Studies show that tutors spend about half their time dealing with pupils’ feelings about what and how they’re learning.”


“Notwithstanding the cognitive benefits of positive emotion, researchers in affective computing also find that deep learning must always involve a fair amount of negative emotion, concentrated in the phase in which students are struggling mightily to grasp new ways of thinking. In fact, students show the lowest levels of enjoyment during learning under the conditions in which they learn the most, and the feeling of confusion turns out to be the best predictor of learning.

Patterns of negative and positive feelings tend to follow a predictable progression, in which students feel worst when they’re in the throes of “cognitive disequilibrium,” or a state of unresolved confusion, and then start to feel better as the material becomes more comprehensible. For learners who experience repeated failures to make headway, however, confusion transitions into frustration, which in turn results in disengagement and boredom (and ultimately, minimal learning).”