Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Brain Exercises

Intelligence is not something that we have simply because evolution favored excessive brain development in our evolutionary ancestors, nor is it something fixed by our circumstances in life. I think we all realize that intelligence is something that we can deliberately cultivate, and, within certain limits, it is never too late to start. There have been many studies consistent with this view, including some that show that working mental puzzles reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease even in old people who, upon post-mortem examination, turned out to have had advanced plaque in their brains.

But what kind of mental exercises? Like many other science nerds, I sort of enjoy accumulating trivia in my brain. But more recently I have started disliking trivia. What I emphasize in my own continued learning, and encourage in my students, is a creative understanding of major concepts. For example, I do in fact continue to memorize Latin names of plants, to add to the considerable list that is already stored in my cerebral interneurons, not because they are fun trivia (how could you not like a name such as Liquidambar styraciflua?) but because each species is different and plays its own unique role in the extremely important ecosystems in which we live. Quercus stellata and Quercus alba are very different trees, even though both are often called “white oaks.” This is not trivial. Perhaps my dislike of trivia is why I find the NPR program “Ask Me Another” a bit irritating.

And perhaps this is why I enjoyed encountering an article by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano (“Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind”) some time back in the October 18, 2013 issue of Science. (Not being a psychologist, I cannot claim to have read the article, much less understood it. I just enjoyed seeing it.) Not all forms of brain exercise are equally characteristic of our uniquely human type of intelligence.

One of the unique aspects of human intelligence is Theory of Mind, which I may summarize simplistically as the ability to know what other people are thinking. This is a kind of intelligence that proved extremely important in prehistoric human evolution; people with the greatest fitness were those who could best survive and reproduce in the complex social landscape of their tribes. It is a kind of intelligence that, I suspect, robots and computers will never have (though even as I write this someone may be creating an AI program that proves me wrong), and which alien life forms, should they exist, may be unlikely to have.

Kidd and Catana preconditioned volunteers by having them do one of four different kinds of activities. The controls did not do any supplemental reading, either of books or of blogs like this one which, if I may presume, encourages readers to think about complex topics in many situations. One group read nonfiction. Another group read genre fiction. A third group read literary fiction. They then tested the ability of the volunteers to figure out what other people were thinking by giving them a quantitative test in which they predicted what a character in a reading would do next. They found that only the group that read literary fiction showed a temporary enhancement in the ability to understand others.

As a writer who keeps looking for a chance to publish fiction, I was intrigued to discover that it is possible to scientifically define the difference between literary and genre fiction. While imperfect, the distinction is rather simple: in genre fiction, you always know how the characters are going to act (good people are always good, bad people are always bad, and detectives are always hard-boiled), while in literary fiction the characters mentally wrestle with their options. In literary fiction, the characters are always trying to figure the world out, while in genre fiction the characters know exactly what to do and do it. This is, of course, a continuum; some people would consider Twilight to be genre fiction, although it does have some literary elements, in which the vampires are not consistently bad. Not all science fiction is based on attacks by evil space monsters; Star Trek was famous for breaking this mold, as was the father of science fiction, Jules Verne, whose Captain Nemo was a very complex character. Or you could say that literary fiction makes you think, while genre fiction just allows you to play with your mind.

Let me imagine that, just possibly, Kidd and Catana see themselves as missionaries of mind. They work at the New School for Social Research in New York City, which also happens to be the world focus of fiction publishing. Increasingly, literary fiction is difficult to publish. I doubt that very many literary agents or publishers will hear Kidd and Catana’s gospel of the mental healthfulness of literary fiction.

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