Brain Processes Stories as Though They Were Real-Life Situations

File Under: Why It Matters

BrainIn a recent study done in Washington University in St Louis, researchers have found that, when reading, the human brain simulates what it reads. It simulates everything, and even engages the part of the brain which would process this situation in real life.

A new brain-imaging study is shedding light on what it means to “get lost” in a good book — suggesting that readers create vivid mental simulations of the sounds, sights, tastes and movements described in a textual narrative while simultaneously activating brain regions used to process similar experiences in real life.

Do I need to explain why this matters? I will, just in case.

This sort of thing is fairly benign, or even positive, when reading helpful stories. When reading about another culture, about a heroic adventure, about someone doing the right thing despite personal loss. That’s great. In these instances, the brain’s ability to simulate what we read is very helpful. We get to experience difficult situations in a safe, controlled environment.

But what if those messages are bad? What if those messages are things like, the hero is always a white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied male? What if it’s things like The Black Character Will Always Betray You or Die For You? What if it’s Women Are Just Trophies For Men At The End Of Their Journey? What if it’s just another in the series of unhelpful or damaging tropes?

When you see these stories, and you see them over and over, your brain re-enacts that shit. It will start to see these things as real, and act that way, even if you as a rational person realize this shit’s not okay. It’ll result in subtle crap like checking for your wallet when a black man gets on the bus, or talking over a woman in a meeting because your opinion matters more. It’ll lead to thinking saying things like “I don’t mind if people are gay, I just wish they wouldn’t flaunt it” is totally okay and perhaps even open-minded of you. Shit like that.

When we say humans are a storyteller species, this shit is what we’re talking about. So to anybody who’s ever tried to convince you that narratives don’t matter, it’s just fiction, blah blah blah, well no, no it’s not. Because science.

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