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Keith Oatley, Ph.D.
Keith Oatley Ph.D.

The Imagined and the Real

Metaphors of action can depend on making the actions mentally.

Brain scans have shown something of what happens in our heads when we read statements that prompt the imagination as compared with those that are literal.

In the Sunday Review section of the New York Times (March 17th, 2012, page R6; click here), Annie Murphy Paul wrote an article on recent research in which she says "new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience."

Paul discusses brain imaging studies on how fiction is processed. In one of these, Véronique Boulenger, Olaf Hauk and Friedemann Pulvermüller (2009) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain's responses to idiomatic sentences that referred to movements of the arm and hand such as "John grasped the idea," or of the leg and foot, such as "Pablo kicked the habit," as compared with literal statements such as "John grasped the object" or "Pablo kicked the ball."

The researchers found that reading either the idiomatic or the literal sentences that had to do with the arm activated the motor and premotor cortex concerned with the arm, and reading the idiomatic and literal sentences that had to do with the leg activated the parts of the motor and premotor cortex concerned with the leg. Comprehension of the idioms, then, appears to involve a mental-neurological version of the actions indicated by the idiom. Boulenger et al. argue that this shows that figurative abstract language can be grounded in concrete sensory-motor information and its specific brain circuits.

After describing the study of Boulenger and her colleagues, Annie Murphy Paul goes on to say:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica.

Boulenger, V., Hauk, O., & Pulvermüller, F. (2009). Grasping ideas with the motor system: Semantic somatotropy in idiom comprehension. Cerebral Cortex, 19, 1905-1914.

Oatley, K. (2011). In the minds of others. Scientific American Mind, 22(6), 62-67.

Paul, A.M. (2012). Your brain on fiction. New York Times, Sunday Review section, March 17, p. 6.

Image: From figure 5 of Boulenger et al.'s (2009) article showing activation of the motor and pre-motor areas of the brain for arm-related idioms (in red) and leg-related idioms (in blue); the brains at the top of the image are seen from the side, and those at the bottom are seen from above.

About the Author
Keith Oatley, Ph.D.

Keith Oatley is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, researcher on the psychology of fiction, and author of three novels.

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