Books can rewire our brains, and connect us all

Books can rewire our brains, and connect us all
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In an increasingly fragmented world, it’s natural to wonder if anything remains to galvanize our unity. Divisive U.S. politics, Brexit, trade wars, distrust of foreign governments and the like polarize us as individuals and communities. The Us vs. Them rhetoric that colors public debate underscores the need to build bridges that take us outside our frame of reference and empower us to react with understanding toward those with different, even opposing, views. How do we see another side, another person, or another experience as clearly as we see our own?

In my work, I witness daily the transformative power of books. For children, books often create the first recognition of a self-identity — when they see themselves on the page, their culture and life experiences acknowledged or, even better, celebrated. When books reflect our own surroundings, when scenes and sentences resonate as authentic, then — as readers of any age — we internalize the message that our lives have value.

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Juxtaposed, literature can be the window that transports us into realities far from our own. Books are more than binary tools to entertain or educate. They rewire our brain for emotional intelligence and allow us to empathize, offering a view outside ourselves. Books, notably fiction, have the capacity to make us better people, contributing positively to our ability to recognize that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from our own. Storytelling allows us to deeply consider someone else’s behavior, rather than dismiss the differences we see or accept similarities as rote. We are then able to ask “why” and place those different actions or decisions into context.

Interestingly, the brain does not make a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. In fact, there are substantial overlaps in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate real-life interactions with others — in particular, interactions in which we look to identify or contextualize other perspectives or feelings.

In a study led by the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, when the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences such as “Jill grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball,” the scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. When we read, we experience the neurological response akin to the action we are reading about, our brain presented with a reality that it reacts to in kind. Reading is the original virtual reality experience.

With that in mind, imagine the power of literature that forces us to wrestle with a new truth or alternative view of the world. Can a white nationalist read the story of an illegal immigrant, African-American protestor, or Muslim Imam and respond with empathy, acknowledging their humanity and respecting their differences? Can a candidate use the storied history of America to better address the realities of their diverse constituency? Can the experience of reading alter their ideology, their platform?

Literacy, the ability to have these potentially transformative experiences, creates an opportunity to have a more inclusive, accepting and tolerant world. When presented with conflicts or challenges that we have been exposed to on the page in our real lives, we may alter our responses as we recall the multi-dimensionality of a hated figure in the latest novel we read, or the character flaws of a hero in a biography. Perhaps that explains why some of America’s most revered presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt, were noted bookworms. The experience they had on the pages of books paved a way for them to fathom others’ realities and use that knowledge to enact policies for a more unified America.

If we are going to mend the deep schisms that exist, we have to look past our present boundaries and lean into our differences to find the ties that connect us. For some, books may be one of the few places where we meet people wholly unlike ourselves and revel in our differences. No quest to become a global citizen, or effective politician for that matter, can be realized without a respect for literature and its ability to change us from the inside out.

Geetha Murali, Ph.D., is CEO of Room to Read, a global organization focused on children’s literacy and girls’ education in 16 countries and serving millions of children.