Staff Writers —January 16, 2013
Any book lover can tell you: diving into a great novel is an immersive experience that can make
your brain come alive with imagery and emotions and even turn on your senses.
It sounds romantic, but there’s real, hard evidence that supports these things
happening to your brain when you read books. In reading, we can actually
physically change our brain structure, become more empathetic, and even trick
our brains into thinking we’ve experienced what we’ve only read in novels.
Reading books and other materials with vivid imagery is not only fun, it also allows us to create worlds in our own minds. But did you know that this happens even if you don’t mean it to? Researchers have found that visual imagery is simply automatic. Participants were able to identify photos of objects faster if they’d just read a sentence that described the object visually, suggesting that when we read a sentence, we automatically bring up pictures of objects in our minds.
Critics are quick to dismiss audiobooks as a
sub-par reading experience, but research has shown that the act of listening to
a story can light up your brain. When we’re told a story, not only are language
processing parts of our brain activated, experiential parts of our brain come
alive, too. Hear about food? Your sensory cortex lights up, while motion
activates the motor cortex. And while you may think that this is limited only
to audiobooks or reading, experts insist that our brains are exposed to
narratives all day long. In fact, researcher Jeremy Hsu shares, “Personal
stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.” So go ahead, listen to
your coworker’s long and drawn out story about their vacation, tune in to talk
radio, or listen to an audiobook in the car: it’s good exercise for your brain.
Have your ever felt so connected to a story that it’s as if you experienced it in real life? There’s a good reason why: your brain actually believes that you have experienced it. When we read, the
brain does not make a real distinction between reading about an experience and
actually living it. Whether reading or experiencing it, the same neurological
regions are stimulated. Novels are able to enter into our thoughts and
feelings. While you can certainly hop into a VR game at the mall and have a great
time, it seems that reading is the original virtual reality experience, at
least for your brain.
Any kind of reading provides stimulation for your brain, but different types of reading give different experiences with varying benefits. Stanford University researchers have found that close
literary reading in particular gives your brain a workout in multiple complex
cognitive functions, while pleasure reading increases blood flow to different
areas of the brain. They concluded that reading a novel closely for literary
study and thinking about its value is an effective brain exercise, more effective
than simple pleasure reading alone.
Want to really give your brain a workout? Pick up a foreign language novel. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden tested students from the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, where intensive language learning is the norm, and medicine and cognitive science students at
Umea University. Both groups underwent brain scans just prior to and right
after a three-month period of intensive study. Amazingly, the language students
experienced brain growth in both the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex, with different
levels of brain growth according to the amount of effort and learning students
experienced in that period of time.
If you’re used to reading paper books, picking up an e-reader can feel very awkward at first. But experts insist that your brain can adopt the new technology quickly, no matter your age or how long
you’ve been reading on paper. In fact, the human brain adapts to new
technology, including e-reading, within seven days.
Although your brain can adapt to e-books quickly, that doesn’t mean they offer the same benefits as a paperback. Specifically, they lack what’s called “spatial navigability,” physical cues like the heft of
pages left to read that give us a sense of location. Evolution has shaped our
minds to rely on location cues to find our way around, and without them, we can
be left feeling a little lost. Some e-books offer little in the way of spatial
landmarks, giving a sense of an infinite page. However, with page numbers,
percentage read, and other physical cues, e-books can come close to the same
physical experience as a paper book.
Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s a good thing for your brain. With this structure, our brains are encouraged to think in sequence, linking cause and effect. The more you read,
the more your brain is able to adapt to this line of thinking. Neuroscientists
encourage parents to take this knowledge and use it for children, reading to
kids as much as possible. In doing so, you’ll be instilling story structure in
young minds while the brain has more plasticity, and the capacity to expand
their attention span.
Not everyone is a natural reader. Poor readers may not truly understand the joy of literature, but they can be trained to become better readers. And in this training, their brains actually
change. In a six-month daily reading program from Carnegie Mellon, scientists
discovered that the volume of white matter in the language area of the brain
actually increased. Further, they showed that brain structure can be improved
with this training, making it more important than ever to adopt a healthy love
It feels great to lose yourself in a book, and doing so can even
physically change your brain. As we let go of the emotional and mental chatter
found in the real world, we enjoy deep reading that allows us to feel what the
characters in a story feel. And this in turn makes us more empathetic to people
in real life, becoming more aware and alert to the lives of others.