To mark its 21st birthday, Vintage Books has released a collection of essays on reading called Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! Contributors include Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon, Tim Parks, and Blake Morrison. I also have a piece in the book, “The Dreams of Readers,” in which I mull over my own experience as a reader and try to connect it with some of the interesting new research, by scholars like Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto, that’s being done on the psychology of literary reading. Here’s a short excerpt from my essay:
When we open a book, it seems that we really do enter, as far as our brains are concerned, a new world — one conjured not just out of the author’s words but out of our own memories and desires — and it is our cognitive immersion in that world that gives reading its rich emotional force. Psychologists draw a distinction between two kinds of emotions that can be inspired by a work of art. There are the “aesthetic emotions” that we feel when we view art from a distance, as a spectator: a sense of beauty or of wonder, for instance, or a feeling of awe at the artist’s craft or the work’s unity. These are the emotions that Montaigne likely had in mind when he spoke of the languid pleasure of reading. And then there are the “narrative emotions” we experience when, through the sympathetic actions of our nervous system, we become part of a story, when the distance between the attendee and the attended evaporates. These are the emotions Emerson may have had in mind when he described the spermatic, life-giving force of a “true book.” …
A recent experiment conducted by Oatley and three colleagues suggests that the emotions stirred by literature can even alter, in subtle but real ways, people’s personalities. The researchers recruited 166 university students and gave them a standard personality test that measures such traits as extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. One group of the participants read the Chekhov short story “The Lady with the Toy Dog,” while a control group read a synopsis of the story’s events, stripped of its literary qualities. Both groups then took the personality test again. The results revealed that the people “who read the short story experienced significantly greater change in personality than the control group,” and the effect appeared to be tied to the strong emotional response that the story provoked. What was particularly interesting, Oatley says, is that the readers “all changed in somewhat different ways.” A book is rewritten in the mind of every reader, and the book rewrites each reader’s mind in a unique way, too.
What is it about literary reading that gives it such sway over how we think and feel and perhaps even who we are? Norman Holland, a scholar at the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida, has been studying literature’s psychological effects for many years, and he offers a provocative answer to that question. Although our emotional and intellectual responses to events in literature mirror, at a neuronal level, the responses that we would feel if we actually experienced those events, the mind we read with, argues Holland in his book Literature and the Brain, is a very different mind from the one we use to navigate the real world. In our day-to-day lives, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or clicking on a link at a website. But when we open a book, our expectations and our attitudes change drastically. Because we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence are able to “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work. We read the author’s words with “poetic faith,” to borrow a phrase that the psychologically astute Coleridge used two centuries ago.
“We gain a special trance-like state of mind in which we become unaware of our bodies and our environment,” explains Holland. “We are ‘transported.’” It is only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to literature’s transformative emotional power. That doesn’t mean that reading is anti-social. The central subject of literature is society, and when we lose ourselves in a book we often receive an education in the subtleties and vagaries of human relations. Several studies have shown that reading tends to make us more empathetic, more alert to the inner lives of others. The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.