this is your brain on fiction




Most aspiring fiction writers don’t read enough fiction, which is like a fighter going into the ring with one hand tied behind her back. The game is over before it started. I’ve written about this before – Reading is the Inhale, Writing is the Exhale: Developing Writer’s Intuition – and posted about it in various places and forums over the years, and I always encounter resistance (generally from aspiring fiction writers who don’t read enough).

But this isn’t surprising, since the culture itself delivers deeply mixed messages about the importance of fiction. Parents tell their kids to read books, because we all know that reading is good for you, and makes you smarter, but when the kids look to the parents to see what the parents are doing, they are…generally not reading novels. (They might even be trying to ban the novels that they’re not actually reading.)

Part of this has to do with the way reading is taught in schools, which often works to destroy the very pleasure principle that drives us to do what we do. Studies have shown that extrinsic motivation (offering someone a reward, such as a prize or a good grade) tends to destroy intrinsic motivation (the desire to do the activity simply for the sake of doing the activity), which worsens performance instead of improving it.

And part of this has to do with the fact that the culture doesn’t really understand the point of reading fiction. We prize efficiency, productivity, quantitative results, and ‘being busy’. Fiction seems too self-indulgent, so we tend to say, I just don’t have the time for it. (We do, however, have the time to watch hours of television a day, or go shopping, or aimlessly surf the Web, but whatever.)

We tend to say: I like to read books that actually teach me something.

Because in the end, what does fiction actually do for us? What’s the ROI? It’s not like it actually teaches us anything, or improves our lives in some measurable way…right?


The irony is that we are hardwired for narrative. We consume stories. We hunger for them, we gobble them up, we look for more. Television shows were invented solely to keep enough of us in one place long enough so that advertisers could sell us stuff that we don’t need and were doing fine without. Stories can be scripted – like LOST – or unscripted – like THE BACHELOR, or when Brad dumped Jennifer for Angelina, it doesn’t matter.

The brain is a funny thing. It doesn’t always distinguish between reality and the simulation of a reality. On some level, the brain doesn’t even distinguish between your friends and your favorite imaginary characters. (This might be why, when the 1980s show FAME killed off Nicole, I broke down and bawled like a baby. I was maybe twelve or thirteen at the time. This might also be why, in Victorian times, crowds swarmed the docks when the boats came in carrying the latest edition of Charles Dickens’ serial novel. They cried out, “Is Nell dead?” and when the answer came back ‘yes’, there was weeping and hysteria.)

In fact, when you read about a character performing an action, your brain responds as if you were performing that action yourself. In so doing, your brain absorbs that experience as if it were your own and files it away in that repository of knowledge it can draw on in the future.

There is a survival benefit to this.

Say I’m a caveman, and you’re a caveman, and you come back to the cave one day saying, Dude! I ran into this huge hulking beast with teeth that are like THIS BIG and it seriously tried to eat my head, and I had to run up into a tree and hide until it went away and I needed to piss like a racehorse. Maybe I’ve never seen such a creature before, or even known that it existed, but by absorbing your story I absorb your experience and thus enlarge the field of my own. The next time I leave the cave, I know to keep my eyes peeled for the huge hulking beast, and to hide in a tree if it attacks me.

Even our fascination with celebrities – the stories of their lives – can be traced to evolutionary advantage. Humans are social animals, and it seems to be the way of things for the less powerful to study the powerful, and for the powerful to ignore everybody but their peers. By studying those who influence and rule us, we could figure out how to navigate their routines and personalities so that we could, maybe, poach a mate or steal some food or copy their tactics or in some way advance our own situation.

Narrative organizes information and allows us to remember it. It’s also through narrative that we impart meaning and value to events. In this way we do more than tell stories; we co-create the very reality that we live in. As any number of self-help books will tell you, if you want to change your life, you have to change yourself, and if you want to change the way you see yourself, you need to change the story that you tell yourself about yourself. Either your story empowers you – or it dooms you (a.k.a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’).

We can not only use stories to transform ourselves, but to change others: to impact the way they see the world, to alter their own co-created reality.

Because here’s the thing. We are not the rational creatures we would like to think of ourselves as being. If we made rational decisions for rational reasons, Americans wouldn’t be nearly so overweight, addicted, or in debt as we are (and we are more these things than we’ve ever been in history). Our neocortex – that top layer of brain that enables self-awareness – is a relatively recent development. Our limbic brain (the middle, mammalian brain that runs on emotion) is much older and our reptilian brain (the bottom, primitive brain that runs on instinct) is older still. They’ve had a lot more time to figure out how to get what they want, which means our so-called ‘rational’ brain often gets co-opted, manipulated and overruled.

So in order to truly get through to another person, you have to enlist their emotional as well as their rational brain.

You have to charge your argument, your ideas, with emotion.

What better way to do this than through stories?

— to be continued —

image by Sophie Phelps

Feb 10, 2011

16 comments · Add Yours

“Part of this has to do with the way reading is taught in schools, which often works to destroy the very pleasure principle that drives us to do what we do.”

Like everyone else in high school, we studied Shakespeare. In my case, we read Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet. And I HATED it. The teacher stood at the front of the class, performed a piece of dialog, “translated” it, talked about the symbolism of Lady Macbeth washing her hands over and over or about how Shakespeare was using certain words to reflect a certain theme.

After high school (a whopping 6 years ago) there was no way Shakespeare was going to earn a spot on my book case. Until I bought an e-reader which came with 150 classic books — Wuthering Heights, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Dracula — and a bunch of Shakespeare plays. (And yes, I totally bought my particular e-reader because it came with 150 free books. That’s a year of reading material. Actually, it has “War and Peace,” so two years.)

Alright. Fine. He’s apparently this great writer, I’ll give him another shot. “The Merchant of Venice” it is. So I read it. Then I reread Romeo and Juliet. Then I reread Macbeth. Then I reread Hamlet.

Loved all of them. The only difference between reading Shakespeare now and reading it then is that when I read it now I don’t have someone intellectualizing it for me. I can sit back, crack a beer, and enjoy the story.

I’m planning to build a time machine, go back to tenth grade English, slap my teacher, and say “Just tell the f****** story. Quit talking about all this literary B.S. that none of us care about and just tell the story. It’s a great story, if you’d just get out of the way.”


“They might even be trying to ban the novels that they’re not actually reading.”

A younger family friend (sixteen-ish?) is pretty much the epitome of blind teenage rebellion and the bad decisions that are a quick and easy way to express it. Some YA series caught her parents’ attention for its controversial themes (I don’t remember which series but am pretty sure I never read it, so I don’t know how grounded their worry was) and they asked if she’d heard of it then told her she should stay away from the books. Of course she didn’t, and I assume she liked them—maybe because they were good, maybe just because they were “forbidden,” doesn’t really matter—because then she started reading others, too. Now I lend her books periodically—she doesn’t give them back sometimes, but she doesn’t complain anymore about how I won’t buy her cigarettes or vodka, which is nice. She still does dumb stuff, but it’s good for her to have something to rebel against that’s more likely to improve her life.

Not that hypocrisy and book-banning are cool—just that sometimes they’ve got upsides. There’s that sweet spot in growing up where parents’ poor modeling can sometimes (sometimes, sometimes) work in the kid’s favor.


I totally agree. The best novels are those that educate us, elucidate something for us, inspire us, move us, make us think, make us more aware, etc etc. There are plenty of novels out there that are nothing more than an entertaining read, but I look for the ones with some meaning in them too.

I’ll share a secret here – when you get to read my YA fantasy Lethal Inheritance, you’ll find authentic meditation instructions in it. I don’t use the word meditation, but the necessity for it in this case is embedded in the story. How can you kill demons who feed on fear without the help of a peaceful mind?

The point is, is a teen going to pick up the ‘How to meditate,’ book their parent might want them to read, or are they going to pick up a fantasy novel and learn about it within a great story? The answer is obvious. Maybe the only way we can change the perception of fiction as ‘inferior’ to non fiction is by promoting the ficton that does have moer value than ‘just a good story.’


Yes, yes, and yes! But I suspect you are preaching to the choir here. We are all voracious story readers in our house–me, my husband, and my 2 teen sons. I like what you say about the inhale/exhale relationship between reading and writing. I will have to remember that.


This is one of my favorite blogs. Every post is thoughtful, beautifully written and intelligent. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful insight.

I agree completely and am shocked by writers who don’t read the genres in which they write. I write what I do because it’s what I love to read. And who was it that said, if the book you want to read doesn’t exist, write it? I love that.

Our kids LOVE reading and story telling and getting lost in other worlds, and both of us are writers of fiction and readers of fiction. It is that breath that we try to balance, making time for both.



This post is incredible. It’s one of those ones that feels like it was written for me. I remember my parents telling me that I couldn’t read “Day of the Tryffids” or “War of the Worlds” (even though we had copies of both in the loft) until I was thirteen. I think I was about ten at the time, and it completely turned me off reading.

Now, as a political science/anthropology/American Studies MPhil student (and as an under grad) I read voraciously. Perhaps not enough fiction, but, like LJ, I totally get the inhale/exhale metaphor.

I love the notion of reading as activating mirror neurons, too.

There’s so much here. Can’t wait for the next part. And I might have to read this part again a couple of times.

Thanks again.


Fine. You cross post; I’ll cross comment.

you had me at…
“Most aspiring fiction writers don’t read enough fiction, …and I always encounter resistance (generally from aspiring fiction writers who don’t read enough).”

I know you mean ME! And yes…I’ll admit you were right! I learned this from you. I now read at least 7x the fiction I did when we first met.

I love this post. You said everything in 2 pages that it took Robert McKee a 400 page book to say! Keep it comin’….and I’m HOPING to read some new Musk fiction soon. And yes, I mean THIS Musk!

Stephen Prosapio
Author of DREAM WAR


‘Fiction seems too self-indulgent, so we tend to say, I just don’t have the time for it.’ I come across that so much – people who are at university and either read fiction or non-fiction, never both (so the latter generally dominates due to the demands of study).

A couple of years ago I read an article in New Scientist about fiction. Some people were studying the effects of reading fiction – essentially testing your argument that fiction teaches us about life etc. They were looking at the partly neurological aspects of this.

I don’t know what the outcome of their study was.

From my perspective, I am only 22. But having a library collection amounting to several hundred books, I have said in the past that sometimes I feel like I have lived more than just my own lifetime…


Who doesn’t read? You mean there are actually people who don’t read? Constantly? Most important for a writer is to read….read…and read some more – in all genres.
Great post!!!!


I love this post, and what I’ve read from your blog so far. Re your point about the importance of reading for pleasure, I’ll venture that a book like The Day My Butt Went Psycho has enriched more young minds than has many an earnest tome, simply by teaching them that reading can be its own reward. (Confession: I haven’t read The DMBWP myself, but can vouch for the intrinsic rewards of the same author’s The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow. :) ) Thanks, too, for describing so succinctly what deep roles stories play in our lives. (And there – I can’t even express the thought without saying the stories “play roles.”)


Welcome to My world, Justine!

As a dedicated writer of short fiction, I swim upstream in the literary world every single day. But that’s OK with me. I am true to my creative self and intuitively understand that there have to be wordsmiths out “there” who willingly do the heavy lifting while much of the world is content to suck on the pablum of mediocrity that modern society fosters.

A visiting man from Mars might think that we care more about Lindsey Lohan than we care about sending our young into wars without end. Our Martian observer might deduce that we care more about texting and partying than we do about nurturing our children. Martian sensibility being what it is (might be) would have him believing that we worship at the altar of excess in all forms, from supersized meals, to airhead cable “reality” TV, to porn on the Internet. America is a joke to this Martian. An easy mark. Ripe for takeover by alien forces.

But wait!

There is fiction to feed that emptiness that comes from over-indulging on social cotton candy.

There is intelligent and imaginative overclocking going on right now in fiction writers’ garrets everywhere, poised to rewire those short-circuited synapses of fluff-filled minds.

There is powerful shamanic juju being conjured up from the very molecules of life by these shapeshifters of the global village.

We fiction writers learned long ago (maybe we were born with it) that we were the precious few chosen to lead the literacy-lost out of bondage, to enlighten their dimmed understanding, to strengthen their resolve to resist becoming pawns of crass commercialism.

We fiction EMT’s must freely give creative CPR to the masses who have used but a micron of their total native brainpower. Who have never fed their heads great prose. Who hide behind gaudy designer masks made of the dust of loneliness.

There IS hope as metaphorical Rome burns, consumed in its own juices of self-indulgence, congratulating itself on the spectacle that its prurient PR machine has churned out for the passive Colosseum audience.

That hope resides in the transformational power of storytelling.


A few years ago, I got so busy at work that all I had time to read for a couple of months were business books. I have to tell you, after a month or so without fiction, I felt STARVED. Yes, I did watch a little bit of TV, so I wasn’t completely cut off from storytelling, but there’s something about fiction that feeds my brain. It forces me to create a world in my head in a way that TV and business books don’t. Yes, the author gives us the essentials of the story, but we have to fill in the blanks (what exactly does that character look like? How exactly does that noise sound?), and that takes WORK.

With TV, we see everything. With fiction, we have to create our own pictures based on the words on the page. When I’m not exercising that creative muscle in my mind, I miss it badly.


Love this post! I think as a writer, if we don’t read, it shows… we get emaciated, creatively. I know when I was reading a bunch of non-fiction I had trouble sleeping and really got grouchy. Fiction is my balm and a total sanity saver.


Hi Justine,

Have to tell you, I love the title of this post, I have a story called “This is your brain on haggis” on Adverbs and Stir. There must have been something in the air recently. Anyway, thoughtful piece as always, I really enjoy Tribal Writer.

Nancy Bartlett


Belated quote from Jan/Feb Scientific American Mind piece “What, Me Care?” on empathy and possible causes for its recent decline:

“The types of information we consume have also shifted in recent decades; specifically, Americans have abandoned reading in droves. The number of adults who read literature for pleasure sank below 50 percent for the first time ever in the past 10 years, with the decrease occurring most sharply among college-age adults. And reading may be linked to empathy. In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathetic.”


Justine, I referenced a part of this post in a post I’m doing for Writer Unboxed tomorrow (3-17-11). I’m enjoying both your thinking and your writing. Thanks.


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