Marion Dane Bauer: The Power of Novels

by Mar­i­on Dane Bauer

[I]f you are inter­est­ed in the neu­ro­log­i­cal impact of read­ing, the jour­nal Brain Con­nec­tiv­i­ty pub­lished a paper “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Nov­el on Con­nec­tiv­i­ty in the Brain.” Basi­cal­ly, read­ing nov­els increas­es con­nec­tiv­i­ty, stim­u­lates the front tem­po­ral cor­tex and increas­es activ­i­ty in areas of the brain asso­ci­at­ed with empa­thy and mus­cle mem­o­ry. [Read the whole arti­cle.] 
                                           —Jen­nifer Michal­icek on ChildLit

dummy brainIt’s some­thing we all know — all of us who are writ­ers, read­ers, teach­ers know it, any­way — that read­ing fic­tion, engag­ing in the process of inhab­it­ing anoth­er human being, feel­ing our way into another’s thoughts, feel­ings, desires, enlarges our hearts. It teach­es us to under­stand those who are dif­fer­ent from us. Equal­ly impor­tant, if not more so, it lets us know that in the deep­est pos­si­ble ways we human beings are the same.

We don’t need a study to tell us this is so, and yet I am grate­ful for such a study, and I would guess that you are, too. Long ago I knew teach­ers who had to close their class­room doors least the prin­ci­pal pass in the hall and dis­cov­er them “wast­ing time” read­ing a sto­ry. And in these days of renewed empha­sis on non­fic­tion, I would guess that atti­tude sur­faces again more than occasionally.

Not to dis­miss the impor­tance of non­fic­tion. What bet­ter way to gath­er infor­ma­tion, to increase our under­stand­ing of the world than through the fas­ci­nat­ing, expres­sive non­fic­tion avail­able today? But there is a larg­er under­stand­ing we owe our chil­dren — and our­selves, for that mat­ter — than that which can be gained by com­pre­hend­ing facts. It is an under­stand­ing of our­selves as human beings.

How is it that sto­ry reveals so deeply? After all, the folks talk­ing and act­ing, think­ing and feel­ing on the page are fab­ri­ca­tions cre­at­ed in some stranger’s mind. Our Puri­tan fore­par­ents used to for­bid the read­ing of nov­els, damn­ing them as lies! And from a total­ly lit­er­al per­spec­tive, it is so.

But if a writer is cre­at­ing tru­ly, she is cre­at­ing out of her own sub­stance. She is cre­at­ing out of the truth of who she is, what she knows about her­self and about the peo­ple around her. (For­give me for mak­ing all writ­ers female. The he or she dance is bur­den­some.) If she is writ­ing hon­est­ly, she is reveal­ing on the page what she has allowed few oth­ers to know. In fact, she is prob­a­bly expos­ing far more of her­self than she her­self real­izes, because it is part of the mag­ic of the writ­ing of sto­ry that we are seduced into expos­ing even more than we may com­pre­hend ourselves.

And that is the secret of the rev­e­la­tion of fic­tion. Those who cre­ate sto­ries bring their hid­den human­i­ty to the writ­ing. Those who read sto­ries dis­cov­er their own human­i­ty in the read­ing
… and learn to extend that human­i­ty beyond the con­fines of their own skins.

What deep­er learn­ing can there be from the writ­ten word?

A mechan­i­cal study of the brain isn’t need­ed to under­stand any of this. But it’s a mar­vel of our times that such a study is pos­si­ble, that what most of us know in our hearts can now be proven.

I hope this new under­stand­ing makes it pos­si­ble for every class­room door to stand wide open while such learn­ing takes place.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Liza Ketchum
Liza Ketchum
9 years ago

Thanks, Mar­i­on, for this heart­felt and savvy response to the study. How nice when sci­ence sup­ports what we already know to be true!