Daily Archives: March 27, 2012

Your brain on nonfiction vs. fiction

A guest post by Thomas Larson

In a recent New York Times essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul argues that “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica” to “construct a map of other people’s intentions.” Research suggests 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.”

Narratives make us better people. I’m open to that. I do agree reading fiction is a pleasure as well as socially instructive. And, it seems, neuroscience confirms it. But why only study novel-reading and then moralize it, like eating your spinach, into preferential behavior?

There are two fallacies in Paul’s argument. First, there is no correlation between reading fiction and human compassion or intelligence. (Remember the concentration camp guards who loved Brahms?) Stating that the language of fiction helps us understand social relationships as well as we do “in life” is meaningless. People who don’t read novels are less able to judge one another? To assume that reading “enlarges” this power seems self-congratulatory to print, and sneers at oral cultures.

Second is the claim that such “improvement” is the province of the novel or story. Does that exclude nonfiction narrative? When I read Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction, does less of my wiring crackle and pop? Is such brain-lightning reserved only for the “social life” fiction supposedly portrays so well? Does my brain go all dim reading the anti-social W. G. Sebald or the graphic-nimble Errol Morris? Any good nonfiction writer (and there are thousands) who uses “leathery hands” (which is Paul’s example of a stimulating metaphoric phrase) need not have a “made up” character who has such hands in order to excite his audience. An actual person nonfictionists write about can have such hands, too.

I think it odd that a nonfiction writer (Paul is a social-science writer herself) claims this reading circuitry solely for novels, which she also calls “great literature.” We know what that means: the hearty oatmeal of Jane Austen. But how can anyone argue this, especially after the rise of memoir, collage forms, immersion journalism, and multimedia online storytelling? Nonfiction has accomplished everything fiction has in terms of narrative, description, and insight into human character. What’s more, it extends and complicates the relationship between an author and her actual (some dead, some living) human subjects, which fiction cannot do because its characters exist only in the book itself.

Neuroscientists, please add us nonfictionists to your MRI studies. If you really want to fathom what happens between the artist and the real world, you’ll find our minds are just as voltage-hot and layers deep as any other of the language arts.

Thomas Larson, a nonfictionist, is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist [reviewed on this blog].

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Filed under essay-narrative, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative