The Brain, Story and the Written Word

by Mary K.  Clark.

Can stories stimulate and possibly even change how we act in life?  Neuroscience is showing that it can according to Annie Murphy Paul in her New York Times Opinion Piece, Your Brain on Fiction.

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.

Ms. Paul shares research and evidence involving the written word and the way the brain handles
metaphors involving texture, words depicting movement and how reading even sharpens our social skills such as the ability to empathize with and understand other people. Of course we already knew that reading a novel or a short story can transport us to another place!

Thanks to Lani Peterson, Psy.D. at www.LaniPeterson.com for bringing this article to our attention on the HSA Listserv.

- Mary

©Copyright 5/15/2012 by Mary K. Clark.  All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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The Brain, Story and the Written Word — 5 Comments

  1. Hello Mary,
    Have you look at Maryanne Wolf’s “Proust and the Squid” Icon Books, 2008? Maryanne’s research looks at how we read – all the areas of the brain that need to interact to make the act of reading possible. Its intriguing and fascinating and well worth looking at if you are interested in this area.
    This research – although it is not Maryanne Wolf’s focus – also reveals that there is a profound difference between reading the story or hearing it told – right into the neurophysiological structure of our body.
    I’ve recently completed my PhD and focused on the healing effects of oral story telling, in particular in relation to community building and developing social responsibility. My thesis was part novel part exegesis and I used my storytelling to hold workshop at academic conferences so I moved between the oral/aural and written word. The experience was exhilarating; I could feel/sense the different “places” within my sensory systems that became active when I was working on my exegesis, the novel and oral storytelling. I’d love to use Maryanne’s methods to uncover what happens within our brain structure – especially, what changes, which new pathways are opened or refined – when we hear a story told.

    • Iris,
      Thank you for bringing Maryanne Wolf’s book, “Proust and the Squid” to our attention. There is a lot of information on the web involving Wolf’s work and it looks very interesting. I would love to know where you found the following information: “This research – although it is not Maryanne Wolf’s focus – also reveals that there is a profound difference between reading the story or hearing it told – right into the neurophysiological structure of our body.” And, I agree it would be fascinating “to uncover what happens within our brain structure – especially, what changes, which new pathways are opened or refined – when we hear a story told.” Please share more of your work and information with us. In the meantime, I think I have a new book to put on my reading list. Thank you so much for sharing. – Mary

  2. In the first part of her book, Wolf explores the different parts of the brain that must come together to create meaning out of the black squiggles we call writing (exactly what you are doing now) starting from reading “tokens” via cuneiform and hieroglyphs to writing developed from the greek alphabet.
    Reading different languages, like chinese scripts, require a different part of the brain to become active. “It took our species 2000 years to make the cognitive breakthroughs necessary to learn to read with an alphabet, today our children have to reach those same insights about print in roughly 2000 days” (Wolf p. 19). The process of learning to read actually changes the way we use our brain by connecting ‘older structures for vision and language to learn this new skill [reading] ibid (p. 19).’ We not only need to connect visual and auditory perceptions but also kinaesthetic (eye movement left to right top to bottom and make concept and word associations) capacities and perceptions.

    Listening to an oral story will, I am sure, activate still another sequence of “brain co-operations/coordinations” and I hope to find someone with the skill and where-withall to track what takes place during storytelling. There are some outer visual perception but the far stronger emphasis is on inner images gained through imagination stimulated by the story and inner kinaesthetic experiences; the main stimulation in oral storytelling is of course auditory. In reading the auditory perception becomes more “internalised” the more advanced the reader is.

  3. Thank you for sharing more! There is much I want to add and to ask. I wish you much luck in your work and hope you will share more about your work as it progresses.

    In the meantime if any visitors are interested in learning more about Maryanne Wolf’s work, you might enjoy this short video, “Researcher Maryanne Wolf: Reading is Not Natural” found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-HYayerEeI.

    Thank you Iris! – Mary

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