How Does Reading Affect the Brain?

How Does Reading Affect the Brain?

There is nothing quite as engaging as getting lost in a good book.  We talk about becoming one with the characters, absorbed in the story – even feeling an odd sense of loss when we have finished the book and our lives move on.  As we absorb ourselves in the story, what is really happening inside our brains?

Over the last decade, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) makes it possible to see into the brain while it is engaged in a variety of activities.  This sophisticated technology displays neural connections in the brain or spinal cord by imaging the blood flow to areas in use, using the magnetic differences between oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood to allow researchers to literally see what part of the brain is in use.

Using this technique, researchers at Emory University have found that considering a textural metaphor (e.g., “she had a rough day” or “his voice was like velvet”) activates the portion of the brain that senses texture through touch.  Senior researcher Krish Sathian noted: “our research highlights the role of neural networks, rather than a single area of the brain, in these processes. What could be happening is that the brain is conducting an internal simulation as a way to understand the metaphor, and that’s why the regions associated with touch get involved.”  By engaging the brain with metaphors through listening, or through reading, our brains physically place us in the action. Our brains interpret text the same way that it interprets action. The brain reawakens experiences of all kinds and puts them to work in the service of understanding the metaphor – allowing us to absorb and more fully interpret new ideas.

How we read also makes a difference.  In her collaborative research at Stanford University, Natalie Phillips asked her research subjects to read a chapter from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in an fMRI scanner – first by leisurely skimming the passage as they might read it standing in a bookstore, then reading more closely as they might read it for a seminar.  Her findings are fascinating.  Both forms of reading highlighted increased blood flow to the brain, but the deep reading involved more areas of the brain, including areas normally associated with spatial reasoning or motor controls. The transition to deeper reading, in particular, shifted the brain’s engagement with the Austen chapter significantly.  Phillips’ research colleague Bob Dougherty, Director of Stanford’s Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging, was surprised that “a simple request to the participants to change their literary attention can have such a big impact on the pattern of [brain] activity.” It’s as though the brain spatially recreates the story in the reader’s mind.

Phillips’ research interest started as she considered distraction and distractibility, specifically how it was that she could “lose her keys three times a day” but become so engrossed in the reality of a good book that “the house could burn down around me and I wouldn’t notice.”  Her results underscore the value that studying literature may have on the development of highly functioning brains.  “Paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions,” Phillips noted, adding, “it’s not only what we read – but thinking rigorously about it that’s of value, and that literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.”

Emory research:
S. Lacey, R. Stilla and K. Sathian. Metaphorically Feeling: Comprehending Textural Metaphors Activates Somatosensory Cortex. Brain & Lang. (2012)

Stanford research:

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.