The neuroscience community validates the power of fiction and the perceived reality of words
It has long been my belief that hypnosis performs the equivalent, in a contextual manner, of miracles. Not in the way of a magician, per se, but rather by the way it tickles the imagination and in so doing stimulates the brain via the mind. Stimulated often enough patterns of behaviour begin to form (via a process called long term potentiation or synaptic plasticity) and, eventually, become instinctual; maybe even habitual! One of the most profound forms of habitual development is the language we use; both internal and external. That's simply because words have very powerful associations in the brain, i.e. within specific brain regions, and, in the process, go on to stimulate the associated emotional centres. Neuroscience has now confirmed my belief as being factual, in that if a person says or reads the word lavender, the olfactory cortex (responsible for smell) is stimulated. If one reads an action story, perhaps of rival prison football teams, kicking and gouging their opponents, the motor cortex is aroused; and so on and so forth! Imagine what is happening when you run yourself down, or have aggressive thoughts etc? Will the brain regions involved in these limiting beliefs and negative, aggressive thoughts become live? Of course, they will. So, language really is the interface between thought, emotion and ultimately; behaviour.
So, it seems the use of positive and negative words does indeed have the power to stimulate the positive and negative neurochemical balance of the brain. It's not that these regions or neurotransmitters are positive or negative per se; it's merely a reflection of how they make us feel. When it comes to therapy, it is almost always the case that the client seeking help for an emotional issue has a high level of negative self-talk. Another common aspect is that of transferring thoughts about themselves, to others, meaning others think the same about them as they do. This adds gravity to their perception of self and further enhances their internal negative feedback loop; making the problem bigger, more sustainable and, unfortunately, more real; at least within their mind! It becomes their own personal attribute or confirmation bias. Their inner version or perspective of themselves becomes the object of their outward search for self-justification. In a sense they seek evidence from the outside world that matches their inner view of self; in fact, we all do this! Simplistically, in an effort to find balance and inner peace, the world's inside and out, have to make sense. Any psychopathology that exists prevents this process from being easily achieved and thus, creates the potential for seeking a therapeutic solution.
Generally speaking, we, speak in riddles, for example, a lot of the time when we say, "I think, we actually don't know but by saying "I think", it creates the self-illusion that we do know! Another is the overuse of "try" again, in a psychological sense, relative to therapeutic situations when we use the word try it should mean, it may be difficult or challenging but often it doesn't, we just use the word habitually. In our everyday language, it also alludes to something we intend to do or that we have done. For example, I ask a client, "in such and such a situation, what would you do," "Oh I always try to do this or that!" I then ask, "so what do you actually do?" There is usually an uncomfortable silence and a look of, "weren't you listening? I just told you!" But what you do and what you try to do, can be two different things! The other favourite is the universal use of BUT! which is, good news but bad news! The brain has a tendency to focus on the last thing in it, so, if the last thing in it was, The Bad News, guess what the focus is on? So, we either need to switch to Bad News But Good News or, Good News But Bad News But Good News, always end on a positive!
Another aspect of therapy focuses on helping the client get what they want, easy right? Well, actually, No! Very often when I ask a client, "what do you want?" they may say, "I don't want to have this anxiety!" But that is not what they want, it's what they don't want. Some have said, "you know what I mean." I might but does there brain? Since they are in my office with an anxiety disorder, I'm guessing; it doesn't! What you want cannot include what you don't want or the words, can't don't, won't etc. Nor can it include words like "more" or "some" or " "relatively" et al. The reason for this is simple, the brain needs clarity and when you say, I want to lose "some weight" or be "more relaxed" or "relatively healthy" what does that mean, specifically? Like I said earlier, we talk in riddles! So what should we say? Well if you want to lose weight, be specific. You want to be relaxed, how can you define more relaxed, by how much, how often etc? You want to be healthy - period! And, in order to know if you are, you need to have regular health checks!
So, it is very difficult to have emotional and mental wellness, when you have negative language or language steeped in negative, vague or ambiguous undertones. Want to have a healthy life, physically and mentally, clean up the language!
So it was so refreshing to read the neuroscience of the theory, i.e. that thought, language, words etc. really can make the brain come alive; an aliveness that is every bit as real as if it were actually happening.
Amid the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.
Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. 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.
In a 2006 study published in the journal Neuroimage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odour associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.
Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.
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. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
The novel, of course, is an unequalled 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.
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. 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, neighbours and lovers.
It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr Oatley and Dr Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study by Dr Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television. (Dr. Mar has conjectured that because children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, they may experience more “parent-children conversations about mental states” when it comes to films.)
Fiction, Dr Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel, who have found themselves comparing a plucky young woman to Elizabeth Bennet or a tiresome pedant to Edward Casaubon. Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.
Annie Murphy Paul is the author, most recently, of “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.”
Source: New York Times (more)