Writer in Residence

Neuroscience and Literature – an Interview with Dr. Marissa Maheu in Which I Don’t Know What I’m Talking About

By Alexis von Konigslow

Okay first, I want to say that I try. I do! I will freely admit that I have no idea what I’m talking about here, so this post is a half-formed thing (ha!) in which I’m trying to figure stuff out.

In an earlier post, I wrote about Such Stuff as Dreams by Dr. Keith Oately. I read the book months ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Dr. Oatley wrote that readers can sometimes change their personalities when they read literature, particularly literature that they judge to be artistic. He wrote that his results ‘’imply a process in which the artistic component of literature temporarily unfreezes one’s personality system, as its narrative components allow the person to incorporate others’ experience in their own personality system and restabilize it.’’

I really want to understand more about the science of reading, and the idea that literature can cause perturbations in the self and the ability to change.

This time, I pestered Dr. Marissa Maheu. I should mention that while she is a neuroscientist, this is not at all her field. She’s been very kind to talk me through it. She’s also a writer herself (and one to watch!)

I’m including our conversation below. Please note how patient she is with me, as I ask her about things that she does not study.

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First, you study neuroplasticity. Could you please explain this?

Neuroplasticity is a fairly general term. In the broadest sense, it refers to neurons' capacity to change their structure and function. There are many forms of neuroplasticity that occur in the human brain, and these range from relatively subtle changes, like synaptic remodeling that either increases or decreases the efficiency with which two neurons communicate (Hebbian plasticity), to major structural changes. The most extreme of these is probably adult neurogenesis: the proliferation, migration, differentiation, and functional integration of new neurons into existing neural circuits. In general, neuroplasticity is modulated by experience, and different forms can be more or less sensitive to different stimuli (whether these are drugs, experiences, etc.). They also have different functional ramifications and, therefore, underlie different cognitive processes and brain functions. Finally, although all of these forms of plasticity seem to be maintained throughout life, there are particular periods of development during which they happen to a greater or lesser extent. As a result, individuals may be particularly sensitive to stimuli that alter a certain form of neuroplasticity during particular phases of life (like early childhood, or adolescence). A great deal of research on neuroplasticity focuses on how best to increase our capacity for it, effectively extending or re-opening sensitive periods.

Could you explain your area of study?

My background is in cellular and molecular neuroscience, and my doctoral research focused on the regulation of cellular neuroplasticity in the limbic system of suicides. What this means is that I was studying how suicidality is related to neurons' ability to adapt their structure, and thus their function in response to experience, particularly in brain regions involved in emotional processing and memory.

What do you think is the relation between science and storytelling?

That's a complex question that almost certainly has a number of good answers that depend on one's angle of approach. One aspect that they share, for me, is the slow process of watching the unknown unfold. I think that, fundamentally, both science and lit tap into the human desire to discover, to know more about whatever topic has currently got hold of your imagination. I also think that, structurally, they share some interesting parallels. Scientific research is very much about constructing a narrative; take a look at some scholarly articles in journals like Nature, Science, or Neuron and you'll notice that they read like stories, complete with red herrings and try-fail cycles. The construction of the scientific piece may not entail quite as much freedom when it comes to plotting, but the scientist is nonetheless faced with more avenues of exploration than they can possibly tackle. So, like the writer, they must decide which path seems most promising--and can count on having to backtrack now and again when they hit a brick wall. Finally I'll add that, as with readers, most scientists are in it for the emotional pay off. Not exclusively, of course, but the majority of my peers have at some point acknowledged the exquisite high that comes from discovery. That moment when the data's been crunched and you know something that nobody else knows, when you've figured out the answer to the problem that's been plaguing you--it's like the climax at the end of a book you're emotionally invested in. And it's this promise of fulfillment that keeps you going even when the going gets unpleasant--the same one that compels you to finish a powerful story even when the emotional toll is greater than you might otherwise be willing to pay.

The very neat finding that I've been obsessed with thinking about for the last little while is that literature can induce personality changes. Personality is quite fixed, and literature can somehow create an opening to allow readers to change. The change seems to be self directed, and different for each reader. Literature seems to do this when the readers see it as "artistic." The theory is that artistic literature can make the reader feel unsettled, and this can prepare them to make changes. Do you see an explanation for this in the brain?

Personality: This really isn't my area, however in psychology, personality is often characterized and studied focussing the "Big 5" traits: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. And, as I understand it, the Big 5 are remarkably stable. I'm not familiar enough with the lit to say to what extent these can be altered by art or reading--However! Traits people often consider to be part of one's personality, such as empathy (which correlates with Openness, by the way), seem to be more pliable and readily changed as a result of reading (although, I'm not sure how long this lasts--there may be research on this, but I'm not familiar with it).

Have you come across anything similar in your studies?

From a neuroscientific/psychological standpoint, this sort of requirement is interesting when one considers the evolution of human empathy (for a review, see "The Neuroevolution of Empathy"). Whereas many animals display behaviours that are consistent with empathy, empathy is generally induced by direct exposure to evidence of harm--that is, to real-world physical evidence, such as the sound of an animal crying in pain, or the smell of a wound. By contrast, humans don't need to be exposed to the physical reality of hurt to feel empathy. It's enough to make them imagine it. Now the threshold for how vivid the mental image of anguish would have to be undoubtedly varies from person to person, and is probably tied fairly closely to the extent to which they can immerse themselves in a story. But it also implies that a writer's capacity to craft imagery is likely incredibly important in terms of both the number of people who'd change as a result of reading the work, and perhaps the extent to which individual readers themselves change after reading. Again, this is wholly speculative, because I haven't seen any studies that directly examine this.

From a neuro research standpoint, I suspect the mechanisms underlying these phenomena aren't yet clear. But I can speculate about a couple of things. For one, it seems that the less aware readers are of themselves while reading (or, really, the less aware they are of the separation between themselves and the POV character), the more immersed they become, and the more amenable to changing their behaviour/beliefs. This would seem to suggest either that 1) repressing activity in brain regions associated with focus on oneself (orbitofrontal cortex, for instance) might be beneficial, or 2) activity in brain regions associated with focus on oneself should be maintained while, simultaneously, some other mechanism that helps blur the barrier between the individual and the POV character/narrator is activated. Another thing to note about the network underlying the effects you're studying is that it's probably a fairly distributed network with high (if not complete) overlap with neural circuits underlying imagination (the only real distinction would be that one [imagination] is internally generated, and the other [lit] externally. So language processing centres may be more important for the latter). If that's the case, then you're looking at a network that includes, among others, medial and lateral prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, and limbic system (including the hippocampus and amygdala). It's worth noting that these structures--that this very network--is central to episodic memory (that is, memories that are autobiographical--or narrative--in structure).

Do neurons typically need to be unsettled to be changed? (This is likely a very stupid question... I'm still feeling around here...)

Art as something unsettling: Ok, so like I said, I'm really not familiar with this particular effect. But I wanted to note that new and strange experiences (or stimuli) induce different patterns of brain activity than do boring/expected stuff. We encode memories about the strange/challenging more readily, and this effect is amplified when stimuli also evoke an emotional response. That emotion can be either positive or negative, but the stronger the emotional response (the technical term is "arousal"), the more likely it is to amplify the strength of the memory. That which we remember well, we often revisit, so repeated activation of that particular memory circuit may then essentially function as cognitive training, reinforcing whatever “lessons” the reader associated with them at the time. Actually, this speaks to your question of whether "neurons need to be unsettled to be changed". And it's not a stupid question, because the answer is: yeah, kind of. Because whether you're talking about the visual processing system or the limbic (memory/emotional processing) system, our brains are designed to focus on that which is new and unexpected. Even if we notice it at first, anything unchanging or predictable gets excised and left on the cutting room floor, and we either stop processing it until such a time as it changes (visual system) or forget/overwrite the memory (limbic). So the weird/novel/disturbing/exhilarating may well change the way we think simply because they cut through the noise, and excite neuronal networks, more efficiently than non-challenging things.

Can you describe your own writing, and the relationship science has to writing, for you?

The fact is that I generally write (...) fun stuff that isn't what a discerning reader would consider rigorous or science-minded. For me, writing is about turning my thoughts toward something entertaining and light, and my principal concern is crafting a story that's fun rather than searching for some deeper truth. In other words, I save the truth-seeking for my day job. Whatever wisdom there may be in my fiction is incidental and likely to be delivered through a one-liner.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.


Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Alexis von Konigslow’s Author Page

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