Recently the Uk publication, the Telegraph, noted an article published in the Journal of Brain Connectivity that provided evidence that people’s brains are changed by what they read. Experimental subjects read a specific book and their brainwaves showed that, in effect, they experienced what they read.
Think about the implications of that study. If you read about heartbreak, you actually experience the heartbreak. If you read about triumph, you feel triumphant. Presumably if you habitually read books designed to scare the heck out of you, your brain acts as if it has gone through that harrowing experience. So, when someone tells you that reading a certain book changed their life forever, it might very well have done that.
Hallie Ephron has gone a step further and published 1001 Books for Every Mood. This book permits the reader to decide what kind of experience he or she needs, and then read the corresponding novel. Need to indulge your senses? Ephron recommends a number of books including Like Water for Chocolate. Need to satisfy your desire for revenge? Ephron’s choices include Carrie and The First Wives Club.
The study concludes that just as there is something called muscle memory, the same principle applies to the brain. So, if you practice shooting a jump shot enough times, your muscles remember how to do it and you perform that task from memory. Presumably, if you read enough books about joy, your brain builds patterns and you feel joyful.
Now think about the role of a novelist for a minute. Novelists and screenwriters try to manipulate readers and viewers by causing them to react emotionally. The scientific experiment seems to validate the idea that a good writer can cause you to step into the shoes of a character and react just as the character reacts. If it’s an adventure novel or movie, the reader or viewer might feel exhausted after all the twists and turns and near death experiences. If it’s a romantic book or movie, the reader or viewer might walk away with that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with experiencing romance.
Turn your mind to the dark side for a moment. What if a writer is really good at writing very dark novels featuring all kinds of sadistic torture? Does that mean that readers experience these episodes from the perspective of the sadist or murderer and feel some attachment to the character? Maybe the process is self-selecting and people with a tendency toward cruelty find themselves attracted to such books because the characters reinforce dark forces already within them.
There is still an awfully lot of information we lack as to the permanent impact of reading specific novels, but it should cause novelists some pause when it comes to the characters they create. Who knows? Someday certain novels might be labeled “Dangerous to your Mental Health” much the same way we label cigarettes now.