Archives For Your Brain on Fiction

English teachers are seduced by literature. We fell in love with an author’s language, a fascinating plot turn, or a well-developed character, and we are bold in our love. While students may roll their eyes when we proclaim The Great Gatsby  or Great Expectations as  a favorite book, or snicker when we dramatically recite lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we hardly pause in our attempts to introduce 1984 into 2012 brains. They may groan while we happily distribute Lord of the Flies and assure them they will “love” the book; they may find us positively deranged when we weep at the death of Lenny (Of Mice and Men), or the Man (The Road) or Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman). However, nothing makes an English teacher happier than the conversion of our reluctant readers into admirers of an author’s work. The teaching of literature as a record of man’s humanity sums up our purpose, our raison d’etre. For writing and grammar, we will roll up our sleeves and revise, and conference, and edit, edit, edit. For the newer standards in listening and speaking, we support presentations in class and incorporate technology when necessary, but the joy of teaching English is in the literature, in the wealth of stories told by others.

Now, the adoption of Common Core Standards has many English Language Arts teachers concerned. Why? According to one of a number of  Common Core websites, (NOT the Common Core State Standards website) the standards are designed around the “basic idea” of a “utilitarian education.” David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core, supports the expansion of informational texts, a genre formally known as non-fiction, into all disciplines, “For example, students are asked to read a variety of texts. In 4th grade, they must read 50% literary text and 50% informational texts; by high school, they read only 30% literary texts and 70% informational texts.” Of course, English teachers have always included exceptionally well written pieces of non-fiction into their teaching. For example, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal illustrates power of satire, Elie Wiesel’s Night is a haunting memoir, and Roger Rosenblatt’s The Man in the Water is a memorable personal essay, and all have found homes in English curriculums. But the disproportionate ratio of 30% fiction to 70% informational text? That ratio for lovers of literature is alarming.

In order to achieve the inclusion of informational texts, The Common Core of Standards for English/Language Arts includes a separate set of standards that address reading and writing in history, science, math and the technical areas. While these standards were developed to expand reading and writing in these disciplines in order to advance core knowledge, these standards still fall under the umbrella of the English/Language Arts Standards. Note that these standards have not been developed by the respective disciplines of history, science, math and the technical areas. Moreover, there is no mechanism for enforcing these standards through history, science, math and the technical areas except through the English/Language Arts Standards. English teachers are understandably concerned that they will ultimately be responsible for the increase in the reading of informational texts at the expense of the literature they so dearly love.

So, it is with great delight that I read in an informational text (aka news article) that science supports the reading of fiction.

According to an article in the New York Times, Your Brain on Fiction (3/17/12) by Annie Murphy Paul, neuroscience is riding to the English teacher’s rescue! The article is centered on research that demonstrates “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.” Apparently, our brains cannot differentiate between the fictional experience and the real life experience, “in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” Furthermore, the simulation of social experience in fiction through a character’s point of view  helps prepare our brains for real-life social interactions.

Researchers Dr. Oatley (University of Toronto)  and Dr. Mar (York University-Canada), in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that because of these fictional experiences, readers were more empathetic.

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, ‘is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.’

Dear Common Core, take note. Science has the research to prove that the reading of fiction is equally critical to the development of our social life skills; fiction is not limited to a ratio of 30% importance. The usefulness of fiction in social development is not an arbitrary argument from the heart, but a means by which our brains experience our world.  Yes, informational texts can deliver content and support core knowledge, but fiction is what develops our humanity. Which is why we English teachers fell in love with stories in the first place.