“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” – Mason Cooley
I came across this quote in January when I was feeling the gloomy heaviness of winter and used reading to escape it. The quote stuck with me and made me curious about what happens mentally, emotionally, and physically when we read. I began to dig a little deeper to see what I could find.
In Proust and the Squid, author Maryanne Wolf, takes a close look at the reading brain. She examines how the brain evolved, and the process it goes through when we learn how to read.
Every emerging reader’s brain has to change the way it functions as reading is learned. We start by learning our letter sounds and names then move on to letter blends and whole words and finally progress to reading sentences. Our brain works hard to connect written words to our spoken words.
One part of the brain is responsible for recognizing words while another part of the brain makes it possible to understand the meaning of the words. The stronger these two brain functions are, the faster and more efficiently a person is able to read.
As interesting as that may be, I was more curious about what happens when we are immersed in a great story, painting the scenery, and picturing its characters in our minds.
Researchers have found that different areas of the brain collect information about the settings, actions, and characters, relating them to what you already know and feel. The auditory (hearing) areas of your brain are at work when you read and the little voice inside your head says the words. Your lips and tongue may even move.
The visual area and the front part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) are responsible for mental imagery. When we read the word, “robin” for example, our minds automatically picture a smallish bird with an orange breast and dark-coloured wings. The same thing happens when we read descriptions of a place or character. Our brain instantly creates a picture in our head.
Did you know that our reading experience extends beyond the visual and auditory to the physical? An area of the brain called the central sulcus is responsible for our physical senses (taste, smell, touch etc.) and motor activity. Brain cells in this area are activated and create a feeling of not just reading about the action in a story, but also experiencing the sensations it is describing.
Your muscles may tense or your heart may race in response to a story. For instance, if you’re reading a passage from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where Harry is running away from danger, your brain cells associated with running are activated and your heart may beat faster. Reading literally puts you in a character’s shoes through the biology of the brain!
When we read, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, political identity, profession, age, social status, or even species. You get to look into what it’s like to lose someone, go to war, live in poverty, suffer a disability, or leave your country for a foreign land.
While the research is not conclusive, some suggest that these experiences help us relate more to people in real life and may help to increase our empathy.
On a personal note, and not at all based on any scientific research, I have found that reading about people with different experiences to my own has broadened my perspective and increased my understanding and compassion for others.
So, the next time you get immersed in a great story, thank your brain and all the amazing things it is doing to create rich reading experiences for you!
At CBAL, we offer one-to-one reading support, book clubs, and reading workshops for adults, youth, and children. For more information on the reading programs available in your community, contact your local Community Literacy Outreach Coordinator.
For more information on reading and the brain, take a look at these resources:
Why Reading Matters (Rita Carter’s Ted Talk)
Community Literacy Outreach Coordinator – Salmo
Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy