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Alaskan Range: Put A Spark In Your Brain

"Scientific reports on how reading affects brain functions have been pouring out lately, and even the smattering of information I’ve gleaned on the subject is fascinating,'' writes columnist Greg Hill.

“Your Brain on Fiction” is a fascinating New York Times article describing how stories “stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life,” with author Annie Murphy Paul providing a neuroscientific slant on the subject.

The Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain have long been recognized as major players in how written words are mentally interpreted, but scientists recently have realized “that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like ‘lavender,’ ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap,’ for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also from those devoted to dealing with smells.”

“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated,” Paul continued. “And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.”

Need more reasons to read fiction? Apparently fiction readers enhance their ability to “construct a map of other people’s intentions.” Paul reports that researchers at Canada’s York University found that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

Scientific reports on how reading affects brain functions have been pouring out lately, and even the smattering of information I’ve gleaned on the subject is fascinating.

“Smattering,” “superficial piecemeal knowledge,” is a fine old word, dating back to 1583, but what about its relatives “smattery” and “smatter.”

Merriam Webster’s online catalog, whose first search is free, says “smattery” isn’t something akin to a “buttery,” but essentially the same as “smattering.” “Smatter,” to “talk idly, chatter,” is a century older, perhaps stemming from Middle High German term, “smetern,” which meant “chatter.”

Smattering describes much of my knowledge of the world, but like all librarians, I’m paid to find and deliver information, not memorize it. Good thing, because my memory’s been infamously porous since childhood. Send me to the store for three things, without a list and chances are I’ll return with two.

Ironically, I once worked for a guy with a photographic memory and prodigious abilities of natural recall. If State Representative Smiling Dave Allred read it, he could recall it. That’s how he passed the state bar exam the first time after only a semester of law school, for instance. Dave’s memory wasn’t perfect; he sometimes forgot things he’d heard, for example.

When it comes to remembering something, all too often “forgetfulness grows over it like grass,” as Alexander Smith phrased it. Now a partial explanation is offered in a Scientific American article from last December titled, “Why Walking Through a Doorway Makes You Forget.”

Author Charles Brenner describes work by Notre Dame researchers who found that responses by test subjects undergoing memory tests “were both slower and less accurate when they’d walked through a doorway into a new room than when they’d walked the same distance within the same room.”

Brenner writes that “some forms of memory seem to be optimized to keep information ready-to-hand until its shelf-life expires, and then purge that information in favor of new stuff.” Apparently walking through doorways provides a good trigger for that info-dumping.

There are occasional reports of people remembering so much that it’s debilitating. Not being capable of purging memories enough to enjoy new ones must be a curse. After all, the Harper’s Magazine Index reported that the estimated amount of glucose used to power the brain each day amounts to 250 M&Ms, and what happens when your brain needs far more?

Most of us don’t have that problem, thankfully, and when you walk through our library’s doors to give your brain a workout, you better be prepared to acquire and appreciate lots of new memories.


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