Monday, January 23, 2012

Read it, become it

Humankind has always loved stories, ever since, as Kipling put it, ' 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre.' Now a psychologist at Toronto University, Professor Keith Oakley, claims to have experimental proof that stories shape the personalities of their readers.Brain scans show that while a subject is reading, the experiences and emotions of the protagonists are mirrored in such a way that the brain responds as it does to genuine actions and reactions.There seem to be some good effects. One group, which read Chekhov's “The Lady with the Dog” – the story of a guilt-ridden adulterous affair – was much more empathetic than the controls who were presented with the bare facts. And the greater the artistry of the writer, apparently, the greater the effect on the personality.We are what we repeatedly do. Aristotle pointed that out, and so did Anna Leonowens when she sang 'I whistle a happy tune' in The King and I. It looks as if we're now going to have to accept 'read it, become it' as well – which might make us a lot fussier about our reading matter!I know the books I read, and reread, as a child had a huge influence in shaping my world view: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women (though I confess to secretly having a shameful sympathy for Amy) and a wonderful book called Andries by American author Hilda van Stockum (any other fans out there?)I don't doubt, either, that it's been by reading books that I've gained insight into the way people with an experience of life and outlook which is very different from mine feel and think But 'read it, become it'? What does that say about writing crime novels? Beware of monsters, Nietzsche warned. 'If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.'Professor Oakley does have words of comfort, though. 'If you enter the fictional world the reader is going to develop in their own way; it will correspond to their views of right and wrong. One can't legislate against people who read John Fowles's The Collector and decide they're going to abduct someone.'It sounds a bit like the defence for hypnosis. And I do begin to wonder if my diet of crime novels has had a major effect on my personality. Perhaps you'd have to ask my family!

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Pathmanson said...

Reading 25 Ed McBain 87th precinct books in six days made me paranoid to the max. I had to stop reading the rest of them until i had stopped checking for people behind doors and in the shower when i came home from my shop. Knowing that there were no place for a killer to hide under my bed at least saved me that effort...

Aline Templeton said...

I stopped reading ghost stories after I got so spooked I just about gave myself a heart attack when I was alone in the house and a door suddenly swung open...