Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brains on Books

As a woman, wife, mother, daughter, homemaker, writer, business woman, chauffer, cat caretaker I never seem to have enough hours in the day to get everything done. Even with reading and reviewing books as part of my work load, I feel guilty sitting down to read. No multi-tasking, just sitting and reading. Seems decadent, especially when the long list of chores remains undone.

But then I read an article in the New York Times about scientists studying the brain and what happens to it while people read. They approached the subject from both directions. The brain on books, so to speak, by watching it via MRI while someone is actually reading. And another group of scientists look at how books influence thought. “It’s not that evolution gives us insight into fiction,” Mr. Flesch said, “but that fiction gives us insight into evolution.”

He went on to conclude:

"Fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls “altruistic punishers,” people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. “To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage” at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot."

Perhaps a childhood spent at the library or reading in my room explains why I view the world in a much different way than my extended family. I've often wondered how we can be so totally different in our perspective of the world. Maybe reading has made the difference. I've come to realize that books greatly influence my mood. If I'm reading something dark and foreboding, depressing or tragic, I carry that with me. My life is colored, darkened. The world is more frightening. I fight with my husband....

But if I'm reading about someone who has found success, happiness, love, made right choices, saved a life even their own, I see potential and optimism and goodness at every turn. It carries over into movies and television, too. Right now I am obsessed with the series, The Closer.

It stars Kyra Sedgewick (Kevin Bacon's wife) and an ensemble of great, individual characters. I look at the various personalities brought together in each show and marvel at how well the writers defined the characters and gave them quirks and tics that in themselves made them unique. The program solves a murder with each show. Death and dying and torture and violence are their daily lot, but what I like about the program is the problem solving, the way the character draws from daily life, unrelated events and finds solutions. It fits well into my interest in synchronicity.

I'm also delighted in the quirky, almost autistic, personality of the main character: Brenda Leigh Johnson. The creator of this character took an only child raised by a charming southern belle who holds a black belt in manipulation and a controlling, but adoring father -- a military man. They traveled as military families travel from base to base and assignment to assignment. This child, very intelligent, learned lessons well from both parents and her life situation and uses them to bully her way past every impediment to the goal of closing her case. She's flawed. She is devoted to her parents, but sees no conflict between loving them and manipulating them for her own gain. Same with the love interest in the series.

Anyway, while watching the Closer, I see a role model of a successful, devious, loveable, frustrating, problem solving woman who leads a group of mostly men who have come to respect and like her. They are loyal to her. No, not in a sexual way at all at all. About as close to sex as she and her group get is that one detective remarks, "I'd recognize those legs anywhere...."

Brenda Leigh Johnson -- don't you love what that name says about the character?

She uses every trick at her disposal, but we see that the manipulation and deviousness are tools and underneath all of her 'tricks' is a steel will and a woman who will not deviate from her core values or her goal. She does not do anything for personal gain. It is about achieving her goal, not getting rewards, earning money, etc. It is purely altruistic. Good overcoming bad. She could and sometimes does fall off into an unlikeable, self centered character. But she is found out, corrected, made to feel 'just awful.' She never falls away from her pursuit of good. I feel like I am a better person just by spending time with this character.

I'd make a great test subject for these scientists. So maybe a lifetime of reading isn't such a bad life or a waste of time. Books may be mind altering -- better than chocolate as a mood enhancer -- definitely great for one's sex life. Ask any woman how sexy she feels after reading a few of those bodice ripping romances.

Fiction writers serve the greater good. Keep writing!