Author’s Retreat: Changing the World with Your Mind and Faith

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Hoar frost-covered snow pillows, near Manning Park, B.C. (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Some time ago I went on an author’s retreat at my friend’s cabin near Manning Park in British Columbia. Some of them were going skiing at the nearby ski hill and Anne thought I’d appreciate the rustic setting as an ideal place to write. I leapt at the chance. I had lots of writing to do and had set myself up for quite a work schedule: I’d promised ten articles and some excerpts to my publisher, three articles to the online magazine I write for, a review of my manuscript contract with my other publisher, and to write as much as possible on my prequel.

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Zermatt in winter

I’d set myself up for quite a work schedule…Hey, didn’t I say that already?…There was no internet access at the cabin. In fact, no cell phone coverage either. We were pretty isolated from the rest of the world—except for the bustling ski hill not far from us…

Then my computer refused to work…

The ski hill beckoned…

The snowshoes came out…

The sun blazed…

And the hoarfrost on the frozen lake sparkled like jewels in the snow…

…My promise to myself to write melted like giant snow crystals in the sun as I indulged in outdoor walks and diverting conversations with my friend, Anne.

Later in the evening, after the boys finally got the fire going, Anne and I got to talking about the book I’d leant her—Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer. We were soon discussing God and faith; what it meant to have faith in oneself and in others and ultimately what it meant to have someone show faith in you.

After returning from Manning, I ran across an article in Time that featured Dr. Andrew Newberg (professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania) who’d recently authored the book, How God Changes Your Brain. What I found incredibly interesting was the connection made between faith and well-being.

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Nina Munteanu explores with friend Kai near Manning Park

According to Newberg and other neuroscientists, when people engage in prayer or meditation they engage the frontal lobes of the brain, since they govern focus and concentration. In fact, if you pray or meditate long enough you may change your brain permanently; creating thicker frontal lobes. “People who describe themselves as highly spiritual tend to exhibit an asymmetry in the thalamus—a feature that other people can develop after just eight weeks of training in meditation skills,” says Newberg. Better functioning frontal lobes help boost memory, by the way.

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Angel-winged Anne fishes for a treat for her black lab

That faith can play a key role in how our mind and body regulate our general health and determine our own well-being is proven in experiments involving “placebos”. First described in the medical literature in the 1780s, the placebo effect has been documented in some amazing examples of mind-over-matter. Time writer Jeffrey Kluger in his February 23, 2009 article “The Biology of Belief” describes how Parkinson’s disease patients who underwent a sham surgery that they were told would boost the low dopamine levels responsible for their symptoms actually experienced a dopamine bump. Newberg described a cancer patient who regulated his tumors based on his belief of a drug’s efficacy (his tumor shrank).

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Hoar-frost covered shrub

In a post about Brain-Mind-Interfaces (BMI) on The Alien Next Door, I discussed the notion of using our minds to control computers and robots either inside us or close to us and the current technology that is making that possible. Then my good friend, Margaret, told me about this workshop on neurotherapy that she’d attended given by a Dr. Paul Swingle in Vancouver. “He uses biofeedback for the brain to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity

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Hoar frost covered buds

disorders, epilepsy, anxiety, migraine, trauma, and depression,” says Margaret. “It’s all based on the idea that we can control our brain activity and that through training, the brain can learn to modify its own electrical patterns for more efficient processing or to overcome various states of dysfunction.”

 

Neal Krause, a sociologist and public health expert at the University of Michigan, found that people who maintain a sense of gratitude for what’s going right in their lives have a reduced incidence of depression. In another study, he found that people who believe their lives have meaning live longer than people who don’t. Victor Frankl could have told him that!

p.s. speaking of belief, I got all my writing done in the end! My computer decided to behave itself and I got very productive…especially after the chocolate cake.

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Zermatt Alps (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

Buy and Give a Book for Christmas

misty mounteinsThere are many reasons to look at buying and giving books for Christmas; not the least to maintain and encourage our literacy, culture and artistic spirit, but also to promote the industry you and I rely on as writers and readers.

According to Literary Statistics Canada, 42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills. 55% of working age adults in Canada are estimated to have less than adequate health literacy skills. Shockingly, 88% of adults over the age of 65 appear to be in this situation.

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society. — UNESCO

Reading fiction greatly improves our quality of life. Reading is just plain smart. In a study entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in the October 2013 issue of Science, researchers Kidd and Castano reported that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective and cognitive Theory of Mind compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Theory of Mind (ToM) describes the ability to understand others’ mental states, a crucial skill in complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Check out my article on reading fiction, which discusses how it improves empathy, sharpens your brain, helps you sleep better and helps against Alzheimer’s Disease.

I’ve compiled a list of books that I have recently purchased and have or will be giving away this Christmas. Looking at the list, I realize that it represents an eclectic range of style, form and subject matter. That’s good. Diversity is good. Here’s my list:

water-is-webWater Is… by Nina Munteanu. Part history, part science and part philosophy and spirituality, “Water Is…” combines personal journey with scientific discovery that explores water’s many identities and ultimately our own. From water’s many scientific anomalies to its metaphoric archetype with humanity’s evolution and ubiquitous existence in the universe, water remains our most precious and mysterious substance.

 

 

 

flight-behaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. A multi-layered meditation on individual responsibility, told through the discovery by a rural family of the climate-changed behaviour of the monarch butterfly. See my review of Flight Behavior.

 

 

 

 

threebodyproblem-cixin-liuThe Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. In this Hugo Award-winning first of three books on first contact, Liu weaves in metaphoric layers of significance—from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—to reflect on the perspectives of intelligent beings.

 

 

 

 

boilingpoint-maude-barlowBoiling Point by Maude Barlow. Barlow lays bare the issues facing Canada water reserves, including long-outdated water laws, unmapped and unprotected groundwater reserves, agricultural pollution, deforestation and climate change. With its focus on Canada, this book provides an “action” companion to my own “Water Is…”

 

 

 

 

memory-of-water-emmi-itarantaMemory of Water by Emmi Itaranta. This award-winning speculative post-climate change story is dark and reflective like a silent river of unknowable depth, “Memory of Water” flows with a meaning that lingers with you—like the organic scent of soil after a rainstorm—long after you have put the book down. Told in subtle tone and nuance, like an Ingmar Bergman film, the story of a young tea master in a post climate change world unravels a quiet and insidious oppression. Master Noria must navigate the police state to hide her secrets about water. Water remembers…

 

 

quantum-nightQuantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer (autographed). Told through a high paced psychological-political thriller, the story explores the thin line between good and evil and the world of the political sociopath from a Canadian perspective. I braved a snowstorm to attend Robert’s Toronto launch of this book, whose haunting story has persisted with me still; the mark of a great work.

 

 

 

year-of-the-flood-atwoodThe Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (autographed). Set in the visionary future of Atwood’s acclaimed Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood is at once a moving tale of lasting friendship and a landmark work of speculative fiction. In this second book of the MaddAddam trilogy, the long-feared waterless flood has occurred, altering Earth as we know it and obliterating most human life. At a recent talk she gave, I thanked Margaret for her environmental efforts and gave her a copy of my own book, Water Is…

 

 

freenetFreenet by Steve Stanton. The novel is about the power of free information in a post-digital age. Told as a thriller with interesting characters and world building, the book explores what digital immortality means. See my review of Freenet.

 

 

 

 

naturalselectionNatural Selection by Nina Munteanu. This short story collection explores humanity’s co-evolution with our environment and technology. A man uses cyber-eavesdropping to make love. A technocratic government uses gifted people as tools to recast humanity. The ruins of a city serve as battleground between pro-technologists and pro-naturalists. From time-space guardians to cybersex, GMO, and biotech implants, this short story collection is a journey of great scope, imagination and vision. “…a stunning example of good storytelling with an excellent setting and cast of characters.”—Tangent Online

 

 

silent-spring-rachel-carsonSilent Spring by Rachel Carson. Written in the 1960s, Carson’s cautionary book remains as relevant and powerful today as it was 50 years ago. Worth reading for her outlook on the awareness and protection of the natural environment just as Jane Jacobs was on the urban environment

 

 

 

 

far-from-the-madding-crowd-cover-imageFar from the Madding Crowd by Thomas .Hardy. A classic to be savoured. Thomas Hardy weaves a rich pastoral tale that examines the foibles of humanity: pride, vanity, greed, passion…and gives us a touching love story with a realistic ending. Set in Hardy’s Wessex country, the setting is as much a character as his cornucopia of delightful human characters. What I love best about Hardy is how his setting evokes (like a Greek god) story. Through beautiful description, imagery and evocative language, this is not the sort of book you want to race through to see what happens; but to read slowly and savored like a dark, rich coffee. Breathe in its hypnotic scent and let it linger.

 

 

martian-chronicles-copyMartian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles isn’t really about Mars. It’s about us. Who we are, what we are, and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything. The 1970 Bantam book jacket so aptly calls The Martian Chronicles, “a story of familiar people and familiar passions set against incredible beauties of a new world … A skillful blending of fancy and satire, terror and tenderness, wonder and contempt.” See my 2012 article on Ray.

 

 

fahrenheit-451-ray-bradburyFahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. A classic tale by a master of the craft of metaphor. Bradbury uses the fireman in a world where they make fires instead of putting them out, to explore the phenomenon of censorship in a world obsessed with being “good”. Scenes in his book were reminiscent of what the Nazis did in Opernplatz, Berlin. In fact, of this event Bradbury made this poignant statement: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.”

 

darwins-paradoxDarwin’s Paradox / Angel of Chaos duology by Nina Munteanu. This duology explores human-technological symbiosis, AI consciousness, transhumanism and our reconciliation with Nature. I give this duo away every Christmas because they are quite simply my most popular fiction books.

 

 

 

night-country-loren-eiseleyNight Country by Loren Eiseley. Eiseley reflects on the mystery of life, throwing light on those dark places traversed by himself and centuries of humankind. The Night Country is a gift of wisdom and beauty from the famed anthropologist.

 

 

 

 

pilgrim-at-tinker-creekPilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. A personal narrative of the author’s explorations on foot in her neighbourhood as she witnesses astonishing incidents of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence.”

 

 

 

 

novel-shortstorywritersmarket20172017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market by Writer’s Digest. An excellent resource for writers, which includes (besides hundreds of listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, and contests), erudite and useful articles—including “Creative Cures for Writer’s Block” for which I was consulted.

 

 

 

What’s on your list?

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

 

Why Reading Fiction is Smart — Especially if You Write

misty mounteinsWhen a friend of mine asked me recently what book changed my life, I didn’t have to think too far. Two books came to mind instantly, both novels: Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Two very different books, genres, time periods and subject matter. Yet they held in common superlative storytelling, incredible sensuality, and stirring use of metaphor. Bradbury’s simple yet powerful prose held humanity’s most vulnerable traits at close scrutiny, stirring me with the stories of ordinary people journeying into extraordinary places. Hardy’s lyrical and evocative prose entranced me with stories of extraordinary people journeying in ordinary places.

Of course there were many other books and authors who’d influenced me greatly, but these two particularly made me want to be a writer and move people as they had moved me.

A recent discussion with one of my writing students got me thinking about the merits of reading—fiction, particularly—in the writing process and creative writing, especially.

Janice confided to me in an email that her husband prefers non-fiction and reads slowly, while her daughter reads both fiction and non-fiction voraciously and quickly.

“I think (and I could be wrong),” said Janice, “but the more fiction someone reads, the better they are able to communicate in a written form.” She suggested that, “Non-fiction does not have the breadth of style that fiction has, and thus the opportunities to find a style which adequately reflects the writer is somewhat curtailed if all they read is non-fiction. Style is a very personal thing and to have to write large swaths of material, the writer has to be comfortable in writing, thus if they find their ‘voice’ the information can be communicated in a manner which the writer does not find drudgery to write and best of all the reader will not find dry and difficult to read.”

It turns out that Janice’s keen observations and conclusions are corroborated by a fair amount of recent research. In their study a study entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in the October 2013 issue of Science, researchers Kidd and Castano reported that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective and cognitive Theory of Mind compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. Theory of Mind (ToM) describes the ability to understand others’ mental states, a crucial skill in complex social relationships that characterize human societies.

Reading Fiction Improves Empathy

Neuroscientists at Emory University, led by Professor Gregory S. Berns, published findings in the December 2013 issue of the journal Brain Connectivity that suggested that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. Reading fiction, reported Berns et al., improved the reader’s ability to empathize with others and “flex their imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports,” says Christopher Bergland in a recent article in Psychology Today.

“Changes caused by reading a novel are registered in the left temporal cortex,” says Bergland. That’s an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. It’s also the primary sensorimotor region of the brain. “Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as embodies cognition.” Bergland suggests that just thinking about playing basketball can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of playing.

The neural changes suggested that “reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” says Berns, who is director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy in Atlanta. “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” adds Berns. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain and what they do to it.”

Storytelling in novels is a multi-faceted communication that engages a broad range of brain regions. I spend an entire 12-week course at George Brown College and the Universtiy of Toronto workshopping the story tools of an effective writer with my students; tools ranging from the use of metaphor to multi-layered plotting and character archetypes. Story—unlike anecdote, which many mistake for story—resonates with readers in a variety of conscious and sub-conscious ways. Neurobiological research has just begun to identify the brain networks that are activated when processing stories.

The Emory study used a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris (Pompeii), which follows a protagonist rushing against time to save the love of his life. Researchers chose the book for its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Bern says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on a group of students before and after reading a portion of the Harris novel, the Emory researchers demonstrated heightened connectivity in student’s brains. Areas of enhanced connectivity included students’ left temporal cortex, associated with language comprehension, and the central sulcus, associated with sensations and movement.

“The anterior (front) bank of the sulcus contains neurons that control movement of parts of the body,” Berns tells us. “The posterior (rear) bank contains neurons that receive sensory input from the parts of the body. Enhanced connectivity here was a surprise finding, but it implies that, perhaps, the act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist.”

“The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes through embodied cognition is key to improving theory of mind and also the ability to be compassionate,” says Bergland in his article in Psychology Today. He adds, “Although this study does not directly draw these conclusions, it seems like common sense that if we encourage our children to read—as opposed to tuning out through television—theory of mind and the ability to be compassionate to another person’s suffering will improve.”

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense,” says Berns. “Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The Berns study concluded, “At a minimum, we can say that reading stories—especially those with strong narrative arcs—reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains.”

Reading Sharpens Your Brain

In her paper What Reading Does for the Mind, Berkley professor Anne E. Cunningham tells us that those that read generally have higher GPA’s, higher intelligence, and general knowledge than those that don’t. Her study also suggested that reading improves vocabulary and helps compensate for the normally deleterious effects of aging.

Cunningham’s studies demonstrated that reading boosted analytical thinking. This includes the ability to detect patterns more quickly. When I started to read more, my vocabulary increased tremendously. It also improved my spelling. Both of these are important to writers. As psycholinguist Steven Pinker pointed out in The Sense of Style, reading the works of writers you admire is an important way to becoming a better writer. Reading improves your memory. It also helps prioritize goals, by helping us to see another perspective and think “outside” our comfortable box.

Wilson et al. reported in the July 3 2013 issue of the journal Neurology that those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities (such as reading) earlier and later on in life experienced slower memory decline compared to those who didn’t. In particular, people who exercised their minds later in life had a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline compared to their peers with average mental activity.

Reading May Help Against Alzheimer’s Disease

According to research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2001, adults who engage in hobbies that involve the brain, like reading or puzzles, are less likely to have Alzheimer’s disease, while leisure limited to TV watching may increase the risk.

“The brain is an organ just like every other organ in the body. It ages in regard to how it is used,” lead author Dr. Robert P. Friedland told USA Today. “Just as physical activity strengthens the heart, muscles and bones, intellectual activity strengthens the brain against disease.”

Reading Reduces Stress and Helps You Sleep Better

That reading reduces stress and helps you sleep better is an intuitive notion recently corroborated by research at the University of Sussex. Findings by neuropsychologists, led by Dr. David Lewis show that reading a newspaper or book works better and faster than listening to music, going for a walk or sitting down with a cup of tea to calm stressed out nerves. Reading reduced stress levels by 68 per cent. Psychologists say this is because the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction eases the tensions in muscles and the heart. Lewis and his team found that subjects only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in the muscles.

Dr Lewis said: “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation. “This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

So, here’s my question to you: what book changed your life and why?

 

 

 

References:

Berns Gregory S., Blaine Kristina, Prietula Michael J., and Pye Brandon E. 2013. “Short-and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” Brain Connectivity 3(6): 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

Cunningham, Anne. E. 1998. “What Reading Does for the Mind.” In: American Educator/American Federation of Teachers. Spring/Summer,1998.

Kidd, David Comer and Emmanuele Castano. 2013. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science 342 (6156): 377-380. October 2013.

 

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.