Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
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.
The more we study the brain the more we realize that it does not make distinctions between reading and watching, between thinking an experience and having it in real life. The same parts of the brain are stimulated. The same has been discovered about empathy, when we see others in pain, the areas of the brain that would be active if we were suffering from the pain become active as well.
The more we study the brain the more obvious it becomes that the role of art, written or otherwise, is to educate us on how to handle experiences that we would not normally encounter. To educate us by allowing us to see the world from someone else’s point of view.