In the the British journal, Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Dutton wrote about a study conducted by Jeffrey Zacks and his team at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, at Washington University in St. Louis. With the aid of fMRI, Zacks and his co-authors peered deep inside the brains of volunteers as they read stories. What they found provided an intriguing insight into the way our brain constructs our sense of self. Changes in characters’ locations (e.g., “went out of the house into the street”) were associated with increased activity in regions of the temporal lobes involved in spatial orientation and perception, while changes in the objects that a character interacted with (e.g., “picked up a pencil”) produced a similar increase in a region of the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Most important, however, changes in a character’s goal elicited increased activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex, damage to which results in impaired knowledge of the order and structure of planned, intentional action.
Imagining, it would seem, really does make it so. Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative,” according to one of the researchers, Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses.
Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world—makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, “The Dreams of Readers,” “more alert to the inner lives of others.” We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn’t.
Which is worrisome, to say the least, given the current slump in reading habits. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the British charity the National Literacy Trust, one in three children between the ages of 11 and 16 do not own a book, compared with one in 10 in 2005. That equates, in today’s England, to a total of around four million. Almost a fifth of the 18,000 children polled said they had never received a book as a present. And 12 percent said they had never been to a bookshop.
Beyond a concern for waning empathy, perhaps an even more serious apprehension might be that time not spent reading is likely to be redirected towards hours spent interacting with screen media, especially video games. If ” . . . reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains.”, and “, ” . . . transforms the way we see the world”, what are the implications for the influences of first person shooter games on the minds of those who play them?
Empathy is a function of the prefrontal cortex associated with the neurochemical, serotonin. Serotonin plays a central role in the modulation of anger, aggression, mood, and sexuality . Research has shown that the release of dopamine, which is highly elevated during the simulated violence of video games, may be a cause of serotonin reduction. (Nordahl et al., 2003).