Curling up with a good book is one of life’s greatest pleasures, whether you’re reading on a tropical beach while on vacation or nestled into your favorite chair at home. As your eyes skim over the words, your mind conjures up images of the events unfolding on the page. Books can take us to fantastic places, real and imaginary, that we will never visit in our lifetime. And while there is some pleasure to be gained from nonfictional books, my favorite books all seem to fall in the realm of fiction. I am not alone. The science fiction and fantasy genre of literature continues to be one of the most popular. Why do so many readers find these types of books so enticing and engaging?
It all comes down to science, specifically neuroscience.
In a recent PLOS One article (1), researcher decided to investigate the neuroscience behind the appeal of literature containing supernatural elements such as magic. Volunteers were asked to read excerpts from the widely popular series of Harry Potter books while researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine which areas of the brain were most active. Some of these passages described supernatural events, such as a character using magic to help her prepare a meal, while the control passages described nonmagical events such as the main characters’ race to get to Professor McGonagall’s lesson on time. The researchers took great care to minimize the effects of confounding factors such as passage length, sentence complexity and emotional content between experimental and control sentences. After the scans, the 23 volunteers were asked to rate the various excerpts on “supernaturalness”, the number of surprising elements and the level of reading pleasure derived.
These surveys showed that readers ranked supernatural content as more surprising with higher levels of reading pleasure than control passages. The fMRI scans confirmed the survey results. Volunteers exhibited stronger neural activation in the amygdala, which is associated with feelings of surprise and emotional processing. This part of the brain is also associated with hedonic pleasure, leading the authors to suggest that “reading about events so charmingly beyond our everyday life experience lays the ground of gratifying emotional experiences associated with this literature”. They attributed much of the pleasure than we gain from reading to the amygdala. The left amygdala responded to a greater degree than the right probably because the left hemisphere of the brain is dominant for language processing.
Other parts of the brain with increased activity include the inferior frontal gyri, which indicates higher cognitive processing demands. Based on this observation, the authors hypothesize that because these supernatural events are so different than anything that we encounter in our normal routine, those parts of our brain involved in cognition must work harder to reconcile reality and fantasy and to mentally simulate events that we have never experienced. Finally, the inferior frontal gyri and inferior parietal lobules, which are involved in maintaining attention, were activated presumably because the supernatural Harry Potter passages required the readers to pay closer attention than control passages.
Just as some parts of the brain were activated, others exhibited lower activity, including the right parietal lobe, which is thought to be involved in autobiographical memory, working memory and social cognition processing. The authors interpret this to mean that readers are required to draw less upon personal experiences and memories because we have no first-hand experience with such supernatural events.
From this research we can conclude that we enjoy reading science fiction and fantasy books such as the Harry Potter series because descriptions of magic and other supernatural events activate the emotion and hedonic networks of the brain and capture our attention more than other types of books. Albeit our brains must work a little harder to imagine such fantastical events, but that seems like a small price to pay for a good book.
- Hsu, C-T. et al. (2015) The magical activation of left amygdala when reading Harry Potter: An fMRI study on how descriptions of supra-natural events entertain and enchant. PLOS One 10(2), e0118179. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118179