Fiction is Recreation for Your Brain

Posted   |   Written by Patrick Tylee

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What do you do to get rest and relaxation for your mind?

Or for your physical brain as the amazing, overworked organ that it is?

We plan our vacations away from ‘work’ – you know, that verb-noun thing that typically stands for the process by which we make deposits into the checking account. What should be an opportunity to find rest and relaxation is too often replaced by the stress and strain of a fast-paced, do-everything, flail of the arms through some theme park. We race back to the mess which is the hotel room, cram the stinky clothes into the cases along with the new stuffed porpoise, must-have hat, and the thirty dollar t-shirt you can see right through. Race to the airport. Drag it all through the lines and security checkpoints. Squeeze your knees into the MD-80, and pretend to sleep or flip through SkyMall, again. Upon returning home, aren’t you relieved to back? Don’t you then fall onto the bed and sleep for a day? Why are you glad to back from vacation? Are you? Well…Vacation…You’re doing it wrong.
It’s a scientifically proven fact that the human body has defined work/rest cycles. Too often, we ignore the design and evolved processes of our physical selves and conform to the world’s business plan. We wake-eat-parent-drive-work-eat-work-drive-eat-work-TV-parent-work-sleep…times five days or six or seven or ad-infinitum. Tired yet? YOU HAVE TO BREAK OUT OF THAT LOOP.

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Sleep. The human body requires six to eight hours of being turned off each day. Why? Because it’s part of the cycle. All voluntary motors cease their work, autonomic motors slow to the minimum. And the brain, it shuts down too, right?


During deep sleep, where real rest occurs, our brains are stimulated by certain chemicals, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) and glycine, which causes it to ignore external inputs, and focus on the internal rebuilding operation: REM.
Rapid-eye-movement is the state of sleep where our brains clear out the excess stored input, realign the pathways and run through processes akin to Disk Defrag. There is no additional input; the hearing is reduced so that only sounds which could pose a recognized danger get through. Eyes are closed. The sniffer reacts to smoke and unfamiliar body odor, but otherwise may reduce function.

Our brains are humming along, playing dream sequences and rooting out the things we didn’t want to remember; it’s taking out the trash. We awake to a new day and a clean whiteboard.
Our brains never really stop. Even with loss of consciousness, the brain is still operating. However, the memories of that operation are sometimes unavailable for review. It didn’t happen, as far as we know.

Now, have you noticed that in some of your dreams, the story that unfolds may include events and circumstances that you wish might happen, or you fantasize about, or are afraid will happen? Dreams are not always factual. I mean, yes, when I was in high-school, I think I may have gotten lost in the maze of that quarter-mile square campus, but I don’t remember my locker disappearing, and I certainly was not naked trying to find it! The point is, while asleep, your imagination is still operating.

Brains Active During REM

I believe that the creative part of the mind can and does apply itself separately from the calculating and emotional areas of the brain. The act of being creative occurs during REM sleep. Otherwise, all of our dreams would be mere memories, hallucinations at best. Active creativity is therefore a restorative, and perhaps even a therapeutic process. Creation is not re-building anything, and I don’t consider building to be necessarily creative, but rather, work. Creativity…the act of creating something new that did not exist before, is not work. (It does burn calories. I can attest to that!) Now, you can apply work to build what was created. For example, an architect sees the design for the fascia of a structure in his head. He draws it out. The design is transferred into the standing structure by means of construction. When the bystander sees the completed work, he is seeing the building, and he is seeing the design. Were it not for that invisible, creative design, the structure would be just a random pile of blocks and glass.

When we read a book, many parts of our brains are active. If I read a self-help book, or the manual to the dish-washer, or even the purely graphic instructional of a Lego set, it is primarily my calculating brain that is receiving the input. There is information on the page that I need to receive and understand – data in. Often, it’s a uni-directional process of words on the page reflecting light through the pupils of my eyes, onto the retina, across the nerve, and into the visual cortex, to be processed and mentally affixed to some mechanical application in my life. That sounds like work to me.
If I am reading a work of fiction – a novel – there exists a rare opportunity to join my creative mind with the structure of the story. The author has done well by walking me up to the front door of the character’s home, with the few details required for my creativity to act upon.

“Located in the heart of the beautiful property was his grandfather’s old house, which remained largely the same as the day it was constructed by his great-great-grandfather over eighty years ago. The small two-bedroom home was a rustic affair constructed from timber harvested from the property.”
FOUR – by Kirk Withrow © 2014

In your mind, you can see the age of the wood in the colors and textures, the splintery ends of each slat where the softer cellulose evaporated from between the harder skeleton in the grain. A few shoots of grass spring up from between the planks of the porch steps. They creak under the weight of your foot. They should, after all. A honey-bee buzzes around behind you. The pleasant odor of the fertile earth warms your nose and lifts your spirit. Life happens here.

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. – Tom Clancy

As an author of fiction, my goal is to interact with the mind on the other side of the page – the reader. When someone says, “Hey, I read your book!” I always try to remember to ask, “Were you entertained?” Consider that word – entertain. If you entertain guests at your home, what does that look like? They’re given the comfy chair, a glass of something to cool their parched throat, a tasty snack, and whatever else it should take to make them glad they are there and not anywhere else.

Fiction is the restful entertainment for your brain. You should be enjoying yourself.

One of the tools that writers of fiction must have and employ is the ‘suspension of disbelief’. That, my friends, is the comfy couch. As the reader, you’ve got to let yourself fall down into it. Let the big squishy pillows wrap around you and guard you from the reality that is your two opposable thumbs holding wide the papered apparatus. A good writer can open the door, but the reader has to go through it. No, of course there are no starships streaking across the galaxy to surreptitiously stumble upon Earth, and then to disgorge the lover you fantasize about. Yet there they are, at your front door, holding forth a bouquet of Venusian long-stemmed rose hamsters. Each one is straining forward with its tiny furry paws, to give you a lavender hug on the nose. Perfect! Can you see it? Can you let yourself believe it?

A buzz word these days is ‘interactive’. “Watch our TV show! It’s interactive! Are you struggling with an addiction to gluten-free rice cakes? Just text #OU812 to 35877. Then in four words or less tell us about your latest rush to the pantry.” (Forty-cents per text, alternate rates apply, plus taxes and Hollywood fees, you must be eighteen years old to blah blah blah) Now our phones demand interaction. Tablets blast your visual cortex from just seven inches away, and you have to work with them to make them do anything the least bit helpful. Hey, you can play an interactive game to relax. But you have to Crush the Candy, Feed the Farm Animals, and of course the Birds are always Angry. And for what? Where did your imagination take over? When, in this flurry of competitive relaxation did you actually find rest for your soul? How did the tension of restrained creativity find release?
Very likely, it did not.

There’s some vital information that you need, and maybe no one ever told you, and I’m sorry if your parents or teachers or the first person to hand you a doobie forgot to say – Your Life is a Story. It’s a story still being written. And you, my dear, are the main character.
And here’s the fun part, and the scary part – You are the Author of Your Story. You are the one who gets to say what goes on the page. Your imagination has the power, the creative power, to turn fiction into reality, moment by moment, day by day.
“Wait…,” you say, “did you say that was the scary part, too?”
Yes, I did. Because when you don’t write something into your day, into your life, someone else might do that for you. Nature abhors a vacuum. Blank pages must be given words to fill the space. But see, that’s not anyone’s responsibility but yours. (There are people who purposely do that, but we’ll leave them in the yucky box with politicians and black widow spiders) No, I’m not so presumptuous to declare to you the meaning of life. I am saying that you are creative. You are a created and creative creature. Your mind is meant to imagine new things, and then to speak them into existence. Occasionally, you have to stop by Home Depot for thingies to make it stick to the wall, but you thought it up. You should be the one to fill your pages. Once you get the hang of it – teenager! – then you can be less dependent upon others to help with the parts that don’t jive. It takes practice. Oh, yeah, there’s something else I wanted to say that’s really important…it takes practice.
Here’s where I get sappy, and real.

You should read fiction. It’s like the sandbox where you get to try out your imagination without anyone getting injured. (Well…some of my characters do…but) the point is, you don’t get injured. As you read along through some book you’ve picked up or downloaded into your e-reader, there are so many spaces to be filled in. You have to kind of dig into the story a bit, but you’ll find those spaces. That’s where you can interact with the characters and the settings and the action. If the book turns out to be a stinker, don’t waste your time on it. Go get another. I read a lot. Most books are good. A handful are terrific. A few are so bad I can’t get past the first couple of chapters and call it quits. That’s okay. This is my story. I get to say what books I interact with and which ones I ignore. I keep practicing the use of my imagination as I read another author’s book. That helps me so much as I sit to make one hundred percent use of my imagination to author my own manuscript.
I am convinced that fiction is recreation for your brain. Re-creation. Making more imaginary stuff. It’s what your body knows to do every night. Cooperate with yourself!
Let me know what you choose to do with your story.



Your Amazing sleep
Psyche-Central / How Reading Lights Up Your Mind by Kirk Withrow
Science 2012

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