Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Simulate This

I was just reading this interesting article I found through a blog I randomly discovered called The Late Night Library latenightlibrary.wordpress.com. The article they were commenting on was originally published on Boing Boing here:


Here's the not-so-short and nearly skinny. Researchers from the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis have found through brain imaging studies that, as we read narrative stories, our brains simulate the events. The same areas in the brain that would activate if we actually performing the actions being narrated fire in response to simply reading about those actions. Your brain makes little distinction between you do, and what other people tell you they did.

For my part I know that when I read, especially when I get lost in the narrative I sometimes forget that I'm reading and, in short bursts, I instead feel like the story is happening around me, or, indirectly, to me. I think this brain reaction is the reason why we enjoy reading so much. And it helps explain why communication in general is so important in human culture. We communicate to share experiences. And our brains are wired to simulate those experiences, so that, quite literally hearing about an event is almost as good as being there.

It makes sense. Our early hunter-gatherer forebears had no written language. They had no way to document important information. Anything that had to be passed from person to person, generation to generation, had to be passed through the spoken word, and had to be remembered. Hence our brains evolved to, upon hearing (or reading) a given narrative, simulate that experience as if it were our own. Experiencing, even indirectly a story personally makes remembering it that much easier, because your brain remembers it as if you were there.

Prehistoric man, upon finding a new watering hole, would have to describe its location to his tribe mates. Their ability to mentally experience the trip as it was described to them made remembering and following those directions later infinitely easier. Today is no different. We've all had the experience of visualizing roads, signposts and landmarks in our mind's eyes as friends are describing driving directions to one place or another.

Our brains are wired to shared experience. We're social creatures. You learn something, we all benefit. You experience it, you describe it to the group, and it's as if we all participated. Isn't the human brain a remarkable thing?

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