Books, movies, reality are all equally disgusting–and that’s a good thing!

I write nonfiction (obviously), but I also write science fiction and fantasy.

We who write such stuff are occasionally asked (and occasionally wonder) if our works can continue to compete in a media universe in which “science fiction” and “fantasy” conjure up for most people Hollywood special-effects extravaganzas first, and the written word second (if at all).

I was therefore heartened to read of a recent scientific study that indicates that books are every bit as good at stirring emotions as movies.

(Alas, the particular emotion being studied was disgust, which is one most writers–Stephen King perhaps being the exception–only occasionally wish to invoke for fear the disgust will spill over from specific scenes to the entire work…but the study probably holds true for other emotions, as well.)

Mbemba Jabbi, Jojanneke Bastiaansen and Christian Keysers at the Social Brain Lab (love that name) at the BCN NeuroImaging Center of the University Medical Center in Groningen, The Netherlands, conducted the study, published in the online science journal PLoS one.

In the abstract, the authors point out that scientists already know that the same parts of the brain light up whether we, say, kick a ball ourselves, watch someone else kick a ball, or simply imagine kicking a ball. They wondered if the same thing held true for emotions.

They chose to study disgust because it’s pretty easy to generate within the artificial confines of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measures blood flow to various areas of the brain, an indication of the amount of activity occurring in those areas.

Their twelve volunteers, evenly divided between men and women, were each scanned while the researchers induced disgust in three different ways: by showing the subjects a three-second clip of actors tasting the contents of a cup and looking disgusted, having them taste a disgustingly bitter liquid, and having them read and imagine scenarios involving disgust.

How disgusting a scenario? Keysers, quoted in an article on the LiveScience website, gives an example: “Walking along a street, bumping into a reeking, drunken man, who then starts to retch, and realizing that some of his vomit had ended up in your own mouth.”

If that scenario disgusts you (and if it doesn’t, I don’t want to know, because that alone would be disgusting), then a portion of your brain called the anterior insula just became active, and would have lit up the screen of an fMRI machine, if you happened to be sitting in one as you read it.

At least, that’s what the Dutch researchers found: no matter how the disgust was generated, the same region of the brain lit up.

There’s additional evidence that the anterior insula is home of the feeling of disgust: people with brain damage in that area lose the capacity to feel disgusted–they can happily drink sour milk.

In evolutionary terms, disgust helps us survive: many of the things that disgust us could make us ill if we ate them. Our ability to feel disgust second-hand also provides a survival benefit: if we feel just as disgusted watching someone else spit out something they find disgusting–and therefore possibly hazardous–as if we’d tasted it ourselves, we’re less likely to taste it ourselves, which might just possibly save our lives.

Which is wonderful from the point of view of survival of the species (and individual members of it), but I’m more concerned about the survival of that peculiar subspecies known as the fiction writer (and, indeed, one particular individual member of that subspecies, me), and thus for me the most fascinating thing about this study is that indicates that a good book can still move people just as much as a movie can.

As Keysers puts it, “Whether we see a movie or read a story…we activate our bodily representations of what it feels like to be disgusted. And that is why reading a book and viewing a movie can both make us feel as if we literally feel what the protagonist is going through.”

So can books continue to compete with movies?

Absolutely. Scientists say so.

As a science fiction writer, that’s good enough for me.

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