Keith Oatley is a novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the Univeristy of Toronto. He has some remakable things to say about the act of reading. His book, Such Stuff as Dreams suggests that when we read, our brains interpret social interactions in a work of fiction as the real thing – as far as our brains are concerned we experience real human contact and are as affected by the experience as though we were actually present with the characters in the novel.
Oatley has been quoted in the magazine Scientific American Mind (article Fiction Hones Social Skills) as saying, Reading “can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”
Most readers know how deeply they can be affected by the books they read. What they didn’t know before is that when they get involved with a fictional character, they tend to follow their actions as though they were participating in them and develop a deep empathy with their motives and feelings. Oatley suggests that reading is a form of mind-training – a course in how humans behave and react to each other. Readers tend to have better social skills because they are better aquainted with the way other people think and they are more familiar with the huge variety of human behaviour than non-readers.
In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf, an expert on the reading brain, describes how our brains manage to read. Reading is not an innate activity, but it is an invention, and only a few thousand years old at that. It does not come naturally to humans in the way that walking or eating does and on the first page of this book, we learn that it is only because of the remarkable “plasticity” of our brains that we are able to achieve an understanding of the written word.
The book is divided into three parts. Firstly the history of how humans learned to read, secondly how reading is learned and how it develops, and thirdly what happens when in cases like dyslexia, something goes wrong in the “learning to read” process.
The reference to Proust in the title refers to passages from Proust’s writings in which he describes the pleasure of reading, the memories that are evoked by thinking back to special books from childhood (how Proustian!), and the “reading sanctuary”, that place of escape, a refuge from the world and its troubles. If Proust is a metaphor for a particular approach to reading, so the squid in the title refers to early neruo-scientific investigations of that creature which found how neurons fire and transmit to each other, adapting when things go wrong, repairing and compensating along the way. The squid analogy refers to the way reading required something new from existing structure of the brain, only possible because of the “plasticity” referred to earlier.
Mary Roach spent a year investigating the outer fringes of psychic phenomena and has written up her findings in Six Feet Over, a book full of healthy scepticism but also honest investigation. She seems to be a generous and open-minded investigator who does not belittle the enthusiasts she meets and writes entertainingly of what she finds. Starting with “reincarnated children”, Mary Roach travels to India to meet children who are allegedly reincarnations of (mostly)deceased relatives and neighbours. How unlike the western past-lives people who always seem to claim to be reincarnations of more glamorous subjects such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nefertiti etc. Because the surrounding culture is accepting of the childrens’ experiences, the children are not usually subject to even the most gentle questioning of their claims, and Roach finds that a little gentle interrogation of witnesses and the children themselves, soon makes the stories fall apart.
Roach then goes on to look at the history of psychic claims, beginning with the search for the “soul” – where does it reside, what happens when it leaves the body, where does it go? These were hot questions for early scientists of the 18th and 19th century and Roach describes their attempts to find the soul and track its progress from conception to death. The experiments seem highly amusing to us, but Roach reminds us to see them in the context of the days when electricity and radio waves were just being discovered and seemed quite miraculous. She then discovers researchers in the present day who are still on the quest for the soul (in the Univeristy of Arizona for example).