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.” …
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.
(thanks ven !)