The Science Of Literary Escape

Nick Carr investigates what’s going on in our brains when we read deeply:

What is it about literary reading that gives it such sway over how we think and feel and maybe even who we are? Norman Holland, a scholar at the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida, has been studying literature’s psychological effects for many years, and he offers a provocative answer to that question. Although our emotional and intellectual responses to events in literature mirror, at a neuronal level, the responses we would feel if we actually experienced those events, the mind we read with, Holland argues in his book Literature and the Brain, is a very different mind from the one we use to navigate the real world.

In our day-to-day routines, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or tapping a button on a smartphone. But when we open a book, our expectations and our attitudes change. Because we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence can “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work. We read the author’s words with “poetic faith,” to borrow a phrase that the psychologically astute Samuel Coleridge used two centuries ago.

“We gain a special trance-like state of mind in which we become unaware of our bodies and our environment,” explains Holland. “We are ‘transported.’” It is only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to literature’s regenerative power.

That doesn’t mean that reading is anti-social. The central subject of literature is society, and when we lose ourselves in a book we often receive an education in the subtleties and vagaries of human relations. Several studies have shown that reading tends to make us at least a little more empathetic, a little more alert to the inner lives of others. A series of experiments by researchers at the New School for Social Research, reported in Science in 2013, showed that reading literary fiction, in particular, can strengthen a person’s “theory of mind,” which is what psychologists call the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. “Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience,” one of the researchers, David Comer Kidd, told The Guardian newspaper; “it is a social experience.” The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.