updated - May 20, 2013 Monday EDT
Every night, millions of Americans sink into their sofas for a few hours of television. No harm there, considering the quality of television is at an all time high, with premium cable shows like Homeland and Boardwalk Empire featuring movie quality production and Oscar-winning actors along with edgy, surprising plot lines and nuanced characters. These are all the elements that can illuminate the way we live our lives. Isn’t that the reason to read books—to learn something about what it means to be a human? Both television and books are forms of entertainment, concerned with plots and characters and whatever ineffable quality makes readers flip the page or viewers stay tuned.
In fact, there is a glaring, scientific difference: according to an article in the February issue of Poets and Writers by author J.T. Bushnell, reading descriptions in fiction can directly affect brain chemistry. In his article, Bushnell refers to descriptions as “the concrete things we can describe with our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.” All of the qualities you lose in television or movies.
In a television show, of course, there are numerous ways to convey fear: in dialogue, or a depiction—Claire Danes’ doe-eyes darting in the darkened warehouse where Abu Nazir lurks, the music quick and jittery, the cuts fast-paced. But that doesn’t have the same affect as reading a description in a Stephen King novel. Why is that?
According to Bushnell, there are two basic regions of the brain: the higher and the lower. The higher region regulates conscious thinking—facts, math, logic, language rules. The lower region is the one we associate with emotions—regulating sensory input, movement, selective memory—in other words, the more automatic or instinctive systems. It is because of these regions in the brain that thinking occurs in the head and emotional responses in the body—“dread makes your stomach drop, grief squeezes your lungs”—and also the reason Bushnell cites for the brain’s remarkable reactions to reading language on the page.
It seems the brain is incredibly adept at making links between the lower and higher region—even as you’re reading this, your brain is making those very connections. For instance, Bushnell takes an example from a New York Times study that uses brain scans to examine the neurological impact of stories: “words like ‘soap’, ‘lavender’, and ‘cinnamon’ elicit a response not only from the language processing area of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells." Meaning, readers are receiving the double pleasure of understanding the story in two regions of the brain.
So when we read that a character’s hair is “cinnamon-colored,” we see—and feel—more than just a person with brown hair. Rather, a reader experiences whatever smell and memory he or she associates with cinnamon. And that experience is different for every reader, depending on who they are, and what they have experienced. Reading is more than just understanding a word; it’s understanding a world. Now there’s something worth writing home about.
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