Recently, I received further confirmation of the power of the imagination, scientifically established.
A NY Times article in April outlined some neuroscientific research which demonstrated a greater stimulation of the reader’s brain than the act of reading itself would require. Reading about walking, for example, stimulated the motor cortex; and it stimulated a different part of the motor cortex than reading about swinging one’s arms did. Reading about smells stimulated the part of the brain responsible for the perception of smell. There was no actual walking going on, and there was no perceptible smell in the room of the reader, but the brain sprang to life, accepting input from a non-tangible source.
The mind created a physical experience.
It makes me think the fMRI images produced during these studies were visual representations of the imagination at work.
I have always related strongly to any well-written story, and to the characters that live there. Some of the best books have been physically nearly impossible for me to put down, because of my involvement in what was happening. I have felt literally as though I entered an entirely different world. Now, it appears as if science is suggesting that, from the perspective of my brain, at least, I have been brought into a different world.
It’s not just a figment of my imagination.
On top of this, studies have shown that readers of fiction developed better empathy, understanding of inter-personal relationships, and an increased ability to perceive the world from different points of view.
This as the result of something which is supposedly not real. Something which is invented.
Maybe reading novels and short stories should be a prerequisite for work in the diplomatic corps. I like that idea. World peace through prose.
The most amazing part of the Times article, for me, was the fact that these effects of reading also applied to children who were not reading themselves, but who were read to. Listeners to these stories experienced the same enhanced empathy and relational intelligence as readers did.
To me, this is compelling outside evidence of something inherent in the story itself, and in the participation of the storytelling experience, which is special and incomparable.
It’s the central fact of art: what is not real is, sometimes, the most real of all.