What Lights Up Your Neurons?

A friend told me today that this essay, posted in April, “bashes” fiction. I reread my post and decided to say more about the topic, especially since another friend has been debating the value of film and fiction with me.

The latter friend previously said that he wants to spend time on activities that stimulate his neurophysiology (e.g., stuff he finds interesting).  As a younger man, he read a lot of fiction and watched hundreds of films.  Later, he realized that fiction and film just don’t have much value for him when compared with contemporary nonfiction (especially well-researched, actionable stuff that he can use).

I want to bring all these ideas together in a way that clarifies my stance on fiction while providing guidelines for how to “choose” one’s interests:

1. Does the interest in question “light up” your neurons?  (E.g., is it stimulating?)

2. Will the interest in question, if pursued, likely harm you?

3. Will the interest in question, if pursued, likely harm others?

4. What’s the potential for net positive gain (especially, for the world)?  (This is subtle.  E.g., fiction, art, music, etc., can intangibly improve others’ lives.)

If the answer to the first question is “yes” and to the third question “no”, then you’ve found an interest that you should consider developing.  Answering “yes” to the second question is only viable if the answer to the fourth question is “massive”.  (E.g., Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi would probably have answered “yes” to the second and “massive” to the fourth.)

You can then prioritize your interests both by how interesting they are to you and by how helpful they are to the world (and to you).  Then, cut from the bottom so that you’re left with your “best” interests.  Pursue those.  As you go through life, new interests will pop up; apply the same guidelines to them.

In light of these guidelines, which I think you’d agree with, reading fiction might be a strong interest for you, but you may find other intense interests that *also* help the world (or that help you in ways more concrete than just neurostimulation), and you might find that when you prioritize all of your interests and cut from the bottom (because, after all, we only have a finite amount of time and energy), you actually don’t have time for fiction.  Or that you do.  People differ.  They have different neurophysiologies and they resonate with different things (e.g., with different works of art).

Personally, even though I don’t read much fiction and I don’t watch many films, I always appreciate good fiction/films when I encounter them.  Some of my favorite works of art are novels or films; they’re very intellectually/aesthetically stimulating.  I don’t consider such consumption wasteful as long as it’s in moderation.

Your thoughts?


6 thoughts on “What Lights Up Your Neurons?

  1. did I use the word bash?
    I think there are a lot of ideas going on in what you wrote last time and this time. in that other post you seemed to be directly comparing the usefulness of fiction versus nonfiction for aiding one in obtaining information on how to live life. i disagreed with the premise that fiction isn’t useful for how to live life–not because scientific inquiries aren’t valuable–but because fiction does, for me, lead to realizations about life, and also I don’t ask the question up front about whether something (fiction or nonfiction) will be useful to me, in a utilitarian sense. i just extract useful tidbits of ideas from whatever experience i have–be it books, interactions with people, etc. so the question doesn’t really exist for me in that way.
    The idea of net positive again, another arguably utilitarian one, doesn’t really drive my actions either in a conscious, deliberate sense when i’m trying to decide how to spend leisurely time or experience some kind of art. work and financially supporting certain organizations are how I try to effect some positive gain in the world.
    the idea of moderation is interesting–or that if something is done a lot it is wasteful or indulgent if not positively affecting someone else or the world. i disagree. to the extent i don’t see books or art as indulgent even though from a neuronal perspective they are i guess no different from stimulation achieved through drug use, sex, food, looking at a beautiful painting, etc. it’s all positive stimulation to the brain. that being said, things that are essential for our existence as a species and that we are hard wired to find pleasurable–sex and food–I tend to think of as potentially being indulgent.
    reading is critical for my work as a writer, so it’s not really helpful for me to consider reading indulgent, even if it’s not helping anyone else but me.
    i think i see where you’re coming from — if something such as novel reading is indulgent but can be “useful” to the world then that makes it an ideal experience — but don’t really agree with the overlapping value systems needed to justify the activity.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I don’t think you used the word “bashed”, but you seemed to express a similar idea (e.g., I devalued fiction or something).

      I agree, a lot of ideas here, a lot of variables, and this is a thorny philosophical topic. It’s not something that can be discussed adequately in a single essay (if ever). More accurately, this is simply how I judge activities. Others have different value systems.

      Still, I think that if you’re a writer (and you are), then, by my value system, reading is not indulgent for you if it helps you create better pieces of writing. Those better pieces of writing can have greater impact on the world than if you didn’t read and your pieces were weaker.

  2. i agree, to each his own. some value systems, reflected in the exercise about whether reading for a writer is indulgent or not, just make me anxious though. maybe one overlying value system i have is to reduce anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.

  3. you know, the event yesterday got me thinking about a new piece of writing to work on and read the next time an open mic happens. it’s medical related. since you might not read your work, what would you say to my reading something of yours along with my work? of course, i would name you as the author of the piece. i just have an idea for a new piece i’m going to write which i think would go along well with your medical piece about diagnoses. anyway, let me know what you think. if you are not okay with it, i understand.

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