Friday, November 23, 2012

RA in a day 2012: The role of fiction and reading in community-building


The Role of Fiction and Reading in Community-Building with Dr. Raymond A. Mar, Associate professor of psychology at York University.

This was a follow-up to Dr. Mar’s 2010 presentation at RA in a day (see notes). In 2010 he talked about narrative fiction as a “simulation” exercise: when reading a novel, for example, you imagine what it would be like to be in the book. With neural imaging, the areas of the brain that deal with social processing light up when subjects are reading. We develop socially when we read, absorbing complex social information in a format that is easier to understand, and there is a correlational relationship between reading and decoding social information.

In his talk this year, he expanded on his research and examined the role of reading fiction in community development (tying into our theme for the day). He outlined recent research his team has done which as found that the genres people read matter; in fact, their study showed that the two genres that best predicted social abilities were (somewhat surprisingly to many) romance and suspense/thriller. Dr. Mar proposed that the former can be perhaps explained by the fact that all romance is about social abilities, social context and relationships.

He also explored the idea of “embodied cognition,” and its relation to reading: even abstract thought (i.e. when reading about an experience) is rooted in perception/action in the brain. Just thinking about a character’s activities, for instance, will activate the areas related to these actions in the motor cortex. In other words, Dr. Mar said, “experiences were akin to reality.”

Reading also predicts more egalitarianism and reduced gender stereotyping; a reader is “forced” to take the character’s point of view in order to understand and inhabit the story, and he or she thus develops empathy. As always, Dr. Mar was a really fascinating speaker.

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