Storytelling and the brain

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Posted on March 22, 2012 by

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Right now I’m in the beautiful ski resort of Kransjka Gora in Slovenia. Out of my hotel window I can see the Julian Alps rising up into a clear blue sky. On a slightly worrying note, I was here last year and I could swear that something has knocked a hole right through one of the peaks. From this distance I reckon the gap is about the size of a church and I can see daylight through it. The tunnel definitely wasn’t there last year. The mind boggles as to what might have made it.

Anyway I’m here for an education conference, SIRikt 2012. This morning we had a very interesting talk from Dr. Pero Lučin of the University of Rijeka. His topic was on learning, neuroscience and the effect of the new technologies that kids use. His institution is lucky in that it is one of the few research departments in the world with the latest MRI brain scanners. What’s this got to do with science fiction and writing? Well, take a look at the images below.

The brain on the left is reading a book. The brain on the right is searching the internet. So essentially when we surf the net we use much more of our brain than when we read a book. Now the brain grows and maintains complexity through use. Like any other part of the body it needs constant exercise to stop it withering away. So what the research seems to say is that reading is less effective and uses less of the brain than browsing the internet. This goes completely against common (admittedly a bit traditionalist) wisdom that reading makes you clever, computers make you thick.

However the other point Dr Lučin made was that the brain makes fundamental sense of the world through storytelling. This theory has been around for quite a while but neuroscience is beginning to show that it might in fact be true.

Story teller in Damascus with audio visual aid to make sure you listen

Humans make sense of disparate and confusing data by assembling it into stories. People today live in a multi media world bombarded by an undifferentiated storm of data, most of it worthless. The brain’s natural storytelling mechanisms will cherry pick items it finds interesting and assemble them into a narrative, from whence we get meaning. So telling and listening to narratives is a fundamental thought process which we need to stimulate and encourage. That’s the good news for writers who might be feeling a bit deflated after finding that reading a novel is a low level brain activity compared to going on Facebook or trawling through videos of funny cats.

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Response to Storytelling and the brain

  1. Hugh McGuire

    Maybe what the brain image represents is the focused/intense “exercise” you get while reading a book, versus the scattershot/surface “exercise” you get when surfing the internet.

    That is: maybe lighting up just specific parts of the brain while reading is a feature, not a bug, and creates more lasting/valuable impressions, memories, neural pathways, connections.

    “More bits are lighting up in the brain” does not necessarily mean “better.”

    As a comparison, is love felt more keenly by a woman who kisses 20 men or 1 man?

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