Just read a great post by author Annie Murphy Paul to The Opinion Pages of The New York Times Sunday Review. Read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2.
As you have probably heard before, the mind cannot distinguish between a dream and reality. Thus explaining how repeated mental affirmations and mind movies can influence our real life.
Just like enacting with your child the conversation where s/he turns down the drug dealer, or the ride from a drunk friend, or to have unprotected sex, reading fiction accomplishes the same. It is mental rehearsals for real-life occurrences.
The couple studies referred to in this NYT article detail findings from MRI studies. One: fiction narratives can prepare our readers for real life. Two: the use of our different senses lights up different portions of our brains, even to the extent that a perceived arm movement lights up a separate part of our brain from our leg movements. Pretty cool, huh?
Smells light up a specific brain area, whereas "chair" or "key" did not.
Cliched phrases caused no brain reaction.
The sense of touch brought activity to another section of our wonderful mind. Metaphors using our senses are pleasing to our brains. Hence use more descriptive terms, like "leathery" instead of "strong." or "velvet" instead of "pleasing."
All things we have been reminded of in many a writing class or book, right?
Reading fiction gets us into the heads of others so that we learn about their thoughts and feelings, making us more empathetic, and labeled "theory of mind" which phrase I totally love and will now be using all the time forever--ha! Akin to a simulator teaching a pilot to fly a plane before he ever enters a real working cockpit.
Love this . . . the merging of science and emotions.