Getting lost in a book is not as hard as it seems

New brain imaging study shows readers simulate reality

| Staff Reporter

When people feel like the novel they are reading is actually happening to them, they’re not actually that far from the truth, according to a new brain-imaging study.

The study, co-authored by Washington University scientist Jeffery Zacks, director of the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, shows that when people read narratives, brain regions that process the same sensations and actions in real life are activated. These results led the authors to conclude that “getting lost in a book” happens by creating a mental simulation of the story.

The researchers used fMRI imaging to show brain activity, related to changes in blood flow to different areas of the brain, while having participants read stories displayed on a computer screen. Four short passages, less than 1,500 words, were excerpted from a story about a boy’s daily life. 

The data showed that reading about an event in the story was associated with activation of regions of the brain that corresponded to performing or sensing the event. For example, when a character “pulled a light cord,” a region of the brain that deals with grasping motions seemed to be activated.

The study, which will appear in the journal Psychological Science, was co-authored by Zacks along with: University of Denver Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeremy Reynolds, University of Minnesota Postdoctoral Associate in Psychology Khena Swallow and lead author Nicole Speer, a research associate with The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Mental Health Program in Boulder, Colo. 

Previous work has shown that reading single words or phrases activates brain regions associated with the content. However, these results go a step further by examining what happens when reading a whole story in context. 

The work shows that reading is not a passive process, according to Speer. Rather, people mentally recreate the narrative while they read. 

This conclusion corresponds well to what some people intuitively sense about what happens when they read fiction.

Junior Shelby Carpenter, an Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities major who says she does a lot of fiction reading, said, “I usually recreate the visual world in my head, [but] it’s not a world as clear as a movie. It’s more like something you’d see in a dream.”

Junior Rafael García thought the results make sense when compared to everyday psychology.

“This is pretty in line with what I imagined,” he said. “Look at romance novels. Why do you think people read them?” 

Junior Brandon Smith was unsurprised by the findings but appreciated the possibility of formulating an empirical model, calling the study “useful for taking a concept that most people think is intuitive and formalizing it.”

But the study does not address the kind of day-to-day analytical reading that many students do more often than pleasure reading. García wondered if the process is different for him after so many years of reading everything, even novels, critically.

“I’ve directed all my mental energies, fruitlessly for the most part, to becoming a very active and careful reader, so passive reading is kind of a thing of the past,” García said. “Thanks, college. There’s nothing more fun than not being able to decide what you want from a Mexican menu because you’re too busy deconstructing all the historical and ethical and stylistic data that’s packed into a few sentences and a misspelled sign for Señor Julio’s.”

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