The Brain Lights Up

Let’s talk about the brain. Not a day goes by when I don’t read about another study demonstrating a relationship between a particular area in the brain and an attitude, feeling, or behavior.

Imagine, for example, you are reading a really enjoyable novel. At the same time a neuroscientist is measuring the activity of various areas of your brain. A certain area lights up, other areas don’t. What exactly do we know when that happens?

Why is there so much talk about this kind of research, especially in the media with the research labs not far behind? In a recent article in the Times, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Anne Murphy Paul wrote,

“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.”

Change how we act in life? Really? That is a powerful claim. Is the activity in that area of the brain changing us? Or is the “detailed description” having that effect? Would our life be similarly changed if another area of the brain lit up when we read the text?

Are we not going well beyond the data in making inferences like this about the role of brain mechanisms and conscious processes, let alone changes in behavior?

I confess that I am not much enamored of the growing body of research in this area. I also admit I do not fully understand all of it. Still I know enough to realize no one has yet demonstrated a causal relationship between activity in a certain brain area and a particular idea, thought, or feeling.

Indeed, we know more than one area of the brain is activated by a specific experience. We also know the process whereby brain activity might generate a particular conscious experience or behavioral change is still a very great mystery.

It is reasonable to believe, as Kenneth Oatley and Raymond Mar have claimed, that those “who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” But is that because empathic individuals enjoy reading more than those who lack this very important characteristic or because reading fiction is the source of their empathy?

We also know that a great many individuals who do not read fiction have a very strong sense of empathy. Again, like any other behavior, attitude or sentiment, we are faced with the almost impossible task of untangling its roots.

In Psychology’s Ghosts, Jerome Kagan reminds us of this fundamental truth. If we discover an area of the brain that “light’s up” each time we read a book that arouses our sympathy for another person(s), the assumption is that this evidence demonstrates a relationship between the two. But what has been demonstrated? Kagan writes,

"An adolescent's feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning.”

And by “meaning” Kagan is referring to the multiple effects of culture, class, prior experience, etc., factors that all too often are discounted by the prevailing belief in the primary importance of brain mechanisms in governing behavior.