In her book, The Supplement of Reading, Tilottama RYour Brainajan explores the active role a reader plays in the reading of fiction. She claims that the reader’s role is to bridge the gap between the “conception and execution” of the text by supplying “a unity not present in the text”(p.2).
According to Rajan, the reader is not a passive recipient, but a supplement to the narrative; in fact, it is the reader, not the author, who creates meaning.
Recently, research on reading and the brain enhancement has validated Rajan’s claims. Brain studies of volunteers in the act of reading fiction show that the reader actively recreates and rewrites the narrative he reads by engaging his own memories and experiences in the process.
But this is not all. Other studies reveal that reading fiction develops your brain; it makes you smarter and more socially perceptive.
Reading Kafka Makes You Smarter
Because of the demands they make on a reader, the surprise elements in a Kafka story or a David Lynch movie enhance your intelligence.
This is the conclusion of a study conducted by psychologists at UC Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia.
Volunteer subjects were asked to read a version of Kafka’s “The Country Doctor,” a story built on a series of bizarre and absurd events. A second group was asked to read a rewritten version of the same story in which the bizarre elements were explained in a way that made sense.
When both groups were tested later, people who read the original bizarre story scored higher in their ability to decipher hidden patterns, a sign that their brains had been enhanced by the difficulties they encountered while trying to find meaning in the Kafka text.
According to UBC researcher Travis Proulx, your brain is surprised by the unexpected and works its muscles to create order out of disorder. This is the exercise that enhances intelligence.
Reading Fiction Makes You Socially Perceptive
University of Toronto Professor Keith Oatley has studied the impact reading fiction has on the human brain. Because fiction is about “possible selves in possible worlds,” it helps you think and feel as others do.
Neuro-imaging studies show that when you recognize an emotion in a fictional character, the mirror neurons in your brain generate the same emotions. This mirroring of emotional response is the brain stimulation that makes you empathic and socially intelligent.
In one study, Oatley and his team assigned one group of participants to read a short story by Chekhov. The other group read a version of the story presented in a documentary format. When the participants were tested, Oatley discovered that the fiction readers experienced more dramatic changes in personality and perception than those who read the non-fiction version of the narrative.
From Oatley’s perspective, readers of the fictional narrative identified with the protagonists and this identification allowed them to “connect with something larger than themselves, beyond themselves.”
Reading Fiction is an Act of Metaphor
This ability to move beyond the self is the basis of metaphor, a word that means “to carry beyond.” The metaphor’s appearance in human language marked a new stage in man’s evolution.
During this period of transition 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, isolated knowledge domains broke out of their confinement and merged with other domains. According to Oatley, the domains of man’s brain structures “started to interpenetrate and metaphor was born.”
Art is an act of metaphor because it interpenetrates both literal and non-literal domains. By crossing boundaries, art challenges the reader or viewer with the element of surprise and the desire to create meaning out of it.
Because fiction is an art form, it encourages the reader not simply to receive meaning, but to create meaning from the text. For this reason, reading fiction develops your brain.