GIVING MEANING TO MEMORY: What reading does to the brain has fascinated many people for so long
TEACHING aims to activate the brain of the taught. Maybe we're jumping ahead here: we hope to start a reaction in the brain of the person we are trying to teach. A writer tries to do the same thing, and this makes a difference between clichés and evocative writing. A cliché is an easy, laid back way but it does not provoke much reaction because it is passé, uninteresting and hmmm, the I-know-that-already trigger.
Neuroscientists have found that words have powers to evoke and stimulate the hippocampus, that part of our brain that deals with spatiality and things that we learn anew. We should be speaking of hippocampi, really, because there are two of these horse-shoe shaped parts in our brains, the right and the left. And they deal with the memory and learning that comes streaming in, much of that from words.
Words are not native to our brain, but once acquired, they leave trails and trigger parts that you don't normally reach by sitting still.
What reading does to the brain has fascinated many people for many years. Proust's description of his Mum's petites madelines soaked in tea, for instance, is a hippocampus moment that invigorated him when the spoonful of tea with the cake soaked in it touched his palates, when "at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory".
The hippocampus lit the pathways pathways: in other words, it gave meaning to the memory.
Reading is an escape, maybe, but far from taking you away, you are steeped even further into yourself, in ways that are often beneficial. The Madeline soaked in tea was filling him with "a precious essence". Proust said: "This essence was not in me, it was myself."
Prousts's madeline passages are among the most evocative in literature. They show how words connect in your head, and just as linguists are learning how the brain processes words in the most complex way, from recognition to classification and so on, we're now also learning how they bring changes in yourself and even introduce new experience into your brain's pathways.
We imagine things in some of the areas of the brain that we use to experience and understand real events. This is something that the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz discovered many years ago and it was seized by many personal development gurus to design exercises for the body as well as the mind. In writing, words that describe the doing of things so vividly can trigger the same experience, it will be as if the reader is undergoing the same course.
"Oh I feel tired just reading that!" is an expression that goes beyond mere emotion.
What we are basically touching on here is the cognitive activities that whirr in the head when you are reading. Different styles of reading trigger different reactions, shallow reading will stimulate the mind but deeper reading will work it even deeper. Reading about the social issues discussed by a character will make the reader's brain think about those issues too, not necessarily in a conscious way. This is the value of literature at school. Teachers can engage the students in ways that will improve their cognitive ability.
The way that our brain is designed to perceive is interesting from the writer's and the reader's point of view. The movement of inanimate objects, for instance, is read by our brain differently from the movement of animate objects. Bodies moving in space is 'read' differently from leaves that fall. Connectivity creates sympathy and the identification of one with another. I have often wondered why the tram journey by Zafon's characters in their journey to an important place in Shadow of the Wind has had such a hold on me that I vividly heard the whines and even shared feelings that they must have felt as the tram clanked its way. Words gripped and awoke pictures in the head as did the madeline in tea as did readers of Proust drinking his Mum's parlour.
The lure of words in the brain is inestimable, not just in reading but also in story-telling. Taking time to tell stories to children will open their minds to not just words but also to their understanding of narratives and how sequences flow.
Lia Grimanis, a worker with the homeless in Canada urges writers to write to inspire an urge in human beings to move from their own static corner to new realms, to dream and rewire their brains for the better. Our speech, words, narrations trigger this flow of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter connected to the brain's reward centres, and she believes that this gives the boost for the homeless, for instance, into new frontiers. In The Brain That Changes Itself, used by Grimanis as a her source, psychiatrist Norman Doidge says that dopamine is an important trigger for neuroplasticity, the process that creates new pathways.
Words have powers that are now being proven by neuroscience. Perhaps one day neuroscience will be taught in creative writing courses at universities.