We've known for a long time that language is integral to how our brains work and how we perceive the world around us. Words are how we communicate with each other, and also how we communicate and process thoughts and ideas within our own brains. And plenty of people, from your eleventh grade English teacher to your aunt who gave you a copy of White Fang three years in a row without remembering the year before, will tell you that books can make you a better person. This week, some new science seems like it may confirm at least some of that.
A Stanford professor, Joshua Landy, has some new research that calls into question the common assumption that reading fiction does something to strengthen our emotional, moral or empathic muscles, but argues that instead reading fiction is great exercise for our mental skills. And not just in the sense that reading teaches us new words and what characters who live in faraway parts of the world eat for breakfast, but actually stretching our brain cells to be better at things like logic, reaching better understanding through metaphor and comparison, and even "achieving peace of mind," according to Landy.
Within the works of the renowned Irish novelist Beckett, Landy found a method for achieving peace of mind. The general idea, Landy explained, "is that certain philosophical questions have a way of tormenting people." Since they can't be solved, we have to find a way of putting them out of our mind. By systematically juxtaposing competing hypotheses throughout his trilogy – "Molloy," "Malone Dies," and "The Unnamable" – Beckett trains the reader to get beyond the hope for solutions to intractable problems.
Perhaps even more interestingly, Landy says that we can best focus on the potential benefits of reading by moving away from the model of literary interpretation, or as he calls it, "the quest for the message." Instead of spending time trying to wrest some hidden meaning from a text or figure out what a text is "trying to say," as is sometimes the project of classrooms from middle school through higher education, readers might be better off "lingering over passages, contemplating ideas between reading sessions and re-reading passages after some reflection." That is, following the process that most people do when they're reading for pleasure.
Back in March, a New York Times piece talked about the possible function of mirror neurons (which are also, intriguingly, a recurring theme in the most recent profile of Fiona Apple) in the act of reading. When we read about someone getting on a plane, parts of our brain also fire as if they are getting on a plane themselves; when we read a sensory description, like the smell of smoke, the parts of our brain that would smell smoke in real life light up. In short, as the NYT says, "the brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life." None of these observations about books are necessarily news to those who love reading them, and of course there's an ineffable quality that books bring into our lives that science has yet to explain. We don't come back to our favorite books a dozen times or more because of the "mental skills" we gain from it — but in a world that doesn't always appreciate books as much as it should, it's nice to know.