Monday, March 19, 2012

This Is Your Brain On...

Working my way through the Sunday Review section of the New York Times yesterday morning I came upon a fascinating pair of articles separated by only one page. Both are actually opinion pieces. On page 5 is a piece tersely called War Is Brain Damaging. Given recent events, it's not too difficult to discern that this is a piece about traumatic brain injuries incurred by soldiers who have experienced, "repeated exposure to the concussive force of improvised explosive devices-I.E.D.s- a regular event for troops traveling the roads in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The article goes on to detail the case of a woman veteran who can no longer recognize her daughter, and quickly finds its way to Robert Bales, the Army staff sergeant accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians. The author, Kate Wenner, concludes by asking us all if we too don't have a bit of a problem with our memories. "Aren't we all a little guilty of wanting to turn away from the shameful and painful reminders?"
I suppose so. The consequences of war, real war, never make the recruitment videos. PTSD sufferers don't usually want to march in parades, do they?
If war and exposure to the bi-products of war cause brain damage, what appears in this Sunday edition of the paper on the next page appears to do the opposite.
That second op/ed piece is called Your Brain On Fiction. Here, Annie Murphy Paul looks at some new research suggesting that the language-processing areas of the brain aren't the only areas that respond dramatically to words that elicit vivid descriptions. Participants in the study were given brain scans while reading detailed descriptions, evocative metaphors or an emotional exchange between characters.

Without going into elaborate scientific detail, the results are encouraging. Put simply, reading fiction (probably non-fiction too..creative non-fiction?) is good for our health. It not only can grow brain cells, it "improves us as human beings" according to the author. I'd add that it improves our writing skills too. That's because a metaphor like "he had leathery hands" rather than just a simple "he had strong hands" has the ability to rouse the sensory cortex.
Now if only our national budget would react accordingly.

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