Norman Holland

Norman N Holland Ph.D.

This Is Your Brain on Culture

Your brain on stories (and poems, plays, or movies)

Confronting stories, poems, plays, and movies, your brain behaves strangely.

Posted Sep 18, 2009

Literature and the Brain is out.  I've wondered for years, and perhaps you have as well, what is going on in our minds when we cry when Bambi's mother is shot, knowing even as we cry that she is nothing but a drawing on a movie screen. We feel fear as Dracula approaches the heroine's bed. Why? We feel glad when Jane Austen's heroine gets her man. But we know all the time that these characters are mere print on a page or light on a screen.

We believe in these fictional beings and we feel emotions toward them, even when they are as improbable as Brunhilde or Spider-Man. Why?

In both the act of creation by the writer and our re-creation of the work as readers and audience members, we are passive and receptive. Totally involved in perception, we shut down our systems for motor action and the planning of motor actions. For the creator, that means reduced norepinephrine.  For us, just sitting in an armchair reading or in a theater watching, we believe in fictional characters and events because reality testing is tied to motor activity. (See my blogs for 7/24, 7/31, 8/6, 8/13.) Because we are not planning to move, we stop doubting. We feel real emotions toward these fictional characters because the dorsal "where-how" and the ventral "what" systems in our brains are getting conflicting information.

And there are other special ways our brains behave with literature as when we have our individual "taste" or value judgments. So far as we know, all human cultures have always had some form of verbal literature. Does that mean that we inherit a propensity for creating and enjoying novels, movies, poems, comic books, and so on? I think not. I think we and all our fellow hominins simply enjoy them because literature gives our brains cycles of wanting and liking, expecting a reward and getting it.

In short, our brains behave in special ways when we are creating or enjoying literature, and this book spells out those ways. What more can I say? If these questions intrigue you as they have intrigued me, you will enjoy Literature and the Brain (www.literatureandthebrain.com). You can get it for $9.95 download, $24.95 paperback, and $44.95 hardcover (or the "heirloom" edition suitable for gifts at Christmas, Hannukah, birthdays, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs).

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