Before there were cable television, TV series, “binge watching” and modern day video games that had “campaign” setting to get the full story behind the action and online gaming experiences, there were books of fiction. For entertainment you read fiction. Reading books were windows into strange, new worlds where you learned as much about yourself as the characters you were reading about. While great television stories, cable series and campaign events might make you feel connected, whole and thoroughly engaged in the story, it is the actual reading of fiction, whether it is through an ebook, screen or paper that truly improves a person’s mental health. That’s not to say that nothing is gained from audio-visual medium but it is to say that reading takes more effort and engages more brain synapses than passively watching something play itself out.
While thousands of pages could be written here to describe what is mental health, especially “good” mental health as opposed to psychopathology (as in mental illness), I plan to narrow my focus to what I think happens.
What is “Positive” Mental Health?
To me, mental health is positive when the person is a) as happy as they think they could be and b) they are functioning in all important areas of their lives such as holding a range of relationships, being productive, having a sense of purpose. In other words the person is able to have their internal world fully engage and enjoy the external world. There is the need for balance:
• People’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors need to line up and make sense
• Lives have to be goal directed to keep busy, be productive and to have peers
• People need to be able to adapt to sudden changes and be able to cope
• Positive mental health often implies the person has some influence over the course of their life and can learn from mistakes and grow
• And typically the person has more positive events and memories than negative, dark experiences and events that color their outlook and personality to be empty, frightening, and fearful.
Neuroscience of Mental Health
From a neuroscience point of view to date, mental health could be seen as the brain’s allostatic functioning where someone thinks, feels and acts in a way that is understandable, goal directed, and leads to happier lives and better functioning. In this way, the brain’s limbic system (holding the earlier memories, senses, experiences of past, powerful emotions) is under the control of the neocortex. Typically, anxiety produced from the amygdala can overrun the neocortex even though this almond shape brain network is more primitive. When positive mental health is in play, the neocortex has a much better chance of taking charge. The neocortex is resolute, positive, reasonable and calm within a mid-range of emotions. But to function well, the neocortex must be propped up and the limbic system calmed down, usually through practice, desensitization and the neocortex powers of reason. An example would be the new Marine recruit whose anxiety is off the charts when put on the live fire practice range for the first time as opposed to the seasoned veteran with battlefield experienced who’s anxiety does not overwhelm his neocortex allowing him or her to fight and survive in a dangerous situation. This is a good thing.
Another neuroscience theme would be the allocation of certain aptitudes and skill-sets located in different hemispheres of the brain. While the right hemisphere might sponsor most of the intuitive, creative and socially adept abilities, the left hemisphere holds major real-estate in the areas of logic, deduction, reason, language and executive functioning. When mental health is in a good place, the left hemisphere can make sense of the right hemisphere, which in turn helps the person’s internal world accurately perceive the world, correctly interpret the data, and allow the person to function well.
For a mountain of information please check out the works of psychologists Louis Cozolino and Daniel J. Siegel who do a great job of explaining mirror neurons, neurogenesis, white and gray matter, laterality and all the brain-stuff in an understandable way.
Mental Illness and Imbalance
In terms of above, the neuroscience of mental illness and imbalance could be summarized like this:
• The amygdala and limbic system runs over the neocortex leaving anxiety and fear to rule the day
• Pessimism colors the individual’s worldview, and things that are positive like optimism, hope and possibility collapse
• The right hemisphere and left hemisphere are out of sync leaving the person’s internal world in disarray and unable to accurately perceive and process the external world
• The ability to organize, focus, prioritize, engage recourses, plan and execute while learning from past events are lost when the left hemisphere is overwhelmed by powerful emotions
• As a result of brain-systems that are out of sync, disrupted and not working within nominal parameters, fully functioning and being happy are profoundly compromised.
In other words, when people don’t understand something, they feel out of sorts. The lack the “narrative” of why they are not feeling well. Or maybe they know why they are not in a good place but they have yet to figure out the narrative to feel better.
And Reading Fiction Does What?
Unlike watching movies, cable, and other passive models of entertainment, reading requires an active process of engaging the left hemisphere while in a quiet place (or at least a place where they can read). It creates and understandable narrative. This typically means that reading in general must engage the higher levels of deducting, retaining, and thinking when reading. When reading fiction, the act of reading allows the left hemisphere to find the conflicts and plots, embrace the characters you love and loathe the ones you hate, to experience the world created, and to fully utilize the right hemisphere to fully immerse in the emotions, characters, senses and experiences of the story in a controlled and understandable fashion. The hemispheres are in sync. They are in allostatic balance. Fiction is about narrative.
Similarly, the neocortex can find the narrative that makes sense, is reasonable, and leads to an understandable conclusion while allowing the emotions to be experienced via the limbic system in a contained and thoughtful way. Here, the neocortex can run the limbic system and can put words and thoughts to emotions generated by the behavior of reading.
Reading fiction is an active process unique to humans where symbolic communication engages all key parts of the brain to work in unison. It’s a narrative, a story that makes sense and can open you up to new experiences or learn about yourself. The more you read fiction, the more likely you could have balance of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Or at the very least, maybe the strong negative, dark emotions are balanced out or dulled by new, positive, optimistic thinking that reading fiction can accomplish. The more you read fiction, the better you feel.