Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive.
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.
The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.
For some people, genes may prime the brain to be good at language learning, according to some new research. And studies are just starting to pinpoint a few brain regions that are extra-large or extra-efficient in people who excel at languages.
For others, though, it’s more a matter of being determined and motivated enough to put in the hours and hard work necessary to learn new ways of communicating.
“Kids do well in what they like,” said Michael Paradis, a neurolinguist at McGill University in Montreal, who compared language learning to piano, sports or anything else that requires discipline. “Kids who love math do well in math. He loves languages and is doing well in languages.”
“This is just an extreme case of a general principle,” he added. “If you practice and have a great deal of motivation for a particular domain, you’re going to be able to improve in that domain beyond normal limits.”