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How neuroscience is telling us to read to improve our problem solving skills and get on with others

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In Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech he writes:

Why don’t we “think something different” more often? There are several main reasons. The first is that we don’t need to be creative for most of what we do. For example, we don’t need to be creative when we’re driving, or riding on the elevator, etc. We are creatures of habit when it comes to the business of living. For most of our activities, these routines are indispensable. Without them, our lives would be in chaos.

There are times, however, when you need to be creative and generate new ways to accomplish your objectives. When this happens, your own belief system may prevent you from doing so. Here we come to another reason why we don’t “think something different” more often. Most of us have certain attitudes that lock our thinking into the status quo and keep us thinking “more of the same”.

There is something to think about. If my life is one hundred percent just the way I want it to be, then I might leave my habits and attitudes just the way they are. However, if I want to expand my experience of life in the direction of something more joyful, with more understanding and connection, one possible place to begin working might be in the area of my habits and attitudes.

When I’m stuck with a situation that seems to be endlessly going nowhere, I try to remember to air out my habits and attitudes, give them some fresh air and bring in some big thoughts, creative ideas, spiritual thoughts and ideas that expand me.


By reading. At least that is one of the ways. By reading fiction. I like science fiction for this task,
good, riveting out-of-this-world science fiction with images, places and cultures that make my mind boggle.  But any good fiction will do. Fiction stimulates thinking because the reader has to, in whatever way works in his/her mind, recreate the settings of the story. It’s way more effective than watching someone else’s rendition of a scene on a screen. You and I don’t have to exercise our creative muscle when someone else has done all the set-design. Ah, but in a book.

And, what is more, new support for the importance of good old fashioned reading, particularly fiction, is getting support from neuroscience. In The New York Times Opinion Pages of the U.S. Edition, Annie Murphy Paul on March 17, 2012 wrote an article in which she writes:

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.  Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is 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 those devoted to dealing with smells.

Here is my problem: when I get excited by the action of the fiction I’m reading, my reading starts to speed up and I rush through the words because I want to know what is going to happen.  I start to focus down on the story line and this habit of sudden onset speed reading shoves the background scenario even further back and I get to the end of the plot knowing who did what to whom but I can’t remember the details. 

I’ve learned to interrupt that habit now and when I feel the excitement growing and the speed of my reading increasing, I purposefully go back a page or six and start reading slowly with particular attention to the descriptive language that attracted me to my favorite authors in the first place.  What a difference.  In her article, Ms. Murphy tells how researchers have shown that reading words with strong sensory description stimulates that part of the brain associated with the sense, and when reading about specific activities,similarly the brain part associated with the action is stimulated. 

Not only is reading stimulating but it also prepares us to interact better with others. In an article entitled Changing Our Minds, Dr. Keith Oatley, director of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of Toronto writes:

Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable.  It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.

Who are your favorite fiction writers?

When last did you sit down and read for a whole day?  

For more articles click on the titles below:

To risk, To release, To follow through, To trust

Book Review: A More Ardent Fire. From Everyday Love To Love Of God

What's On My Iphone - Productivity, Creativity, Education, I'm an Apaholic

Book Review: Alastair Reynolds, Terminal World (My All Time Favorite Fiction Writer

The Art of Gratitude


  1. I too speed up when the writing gets exciting, It's delightful to see that described in your excellent piece, and thanks for the trick to compensate, because the most exciting part is the part I least want to speed through :)

    And, although I have so many favorite authors it's impossible to pick one, or a dozen, here's one of my favorite science fiction authors - Theodore Sturgeon. Another favorite regular fiction author - John Steinbeck.

    Both have an uncanny ability to present human dilemmas and dramas in the simplest, most vivid language... they're utterly delightful, and their characters are timeless and feel as real as any I've ever read.

    1. hanks Dennis, I appreciate the comment and agree, picking one favorite author is just impossible. It's more likely to by my favorite choice for today! :)


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