How Reading Impacts Our Brains

Pssst. Reading is good for you. Okay, okay, it’s no big secret. You’ve been told that since you were a child, right? If you’re a parent, you’ve likely worn out a few board books from narrating them to your kiddos since the day they were born. And if you’re a bookworm like me, you’ve been devouring stories since childhood.

Humans have only been reading and writing for about 5,000 years, a small slice of Homo Sapiens 300,000 year tenure on Earth. So, why do most brains respond so well to reading if it’s so new to us? How do we lose ourselves in a good book to the point that our eyes blur or we miss our bus stop? What makes a story so phenomenal that it sticks with us weeks after we’ve finished it? 

Well, if we had all the answers, we’d all be on the New York Times bestseller list. However, scientists have started to pinpoint what connects our brains to a well-spun tale. And the results are fascinating.

Reading is hard work and it’s time consuming

“Human beings were never born to read,” says Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.  

Reading offers a unique challenge for your brain. You have to understand and construct narrative. Reading a novel also takes longer than watching its movie adaptation, and that can be a good thing. Wolf puts it this way: “Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight. By and large, with oral language—when you watch a film or listen to a tape—you don’t press pause.”

However, there is also research that suggests our brains react the same way to stories, regardless of whether we are reading or hearing them. So if you listen to audiobooks rather than read print or ebooks, your brain is still getting a workout.

Reading causes changes in your brain.

We all have favourite books. You know the ones. They tend to resonate with us long after we’ve read them, but did you know that they actually change your brain, and those changes can linger for a few days after you’ve finished reading? Researchers at Emory University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on twenty-one Emory undergraduate volunteers over 19 days. The students all read the same novel, and their fMRI brain scans results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the language receptivity centre, on the mornings after they’d read. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study Brain Connectivity and director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy, says, “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Berns doesn’t know how long these neural changes last, but the fact that our brains retain changes to randomly selected novels suggests we might retain longer effects to novels we love, the ones we are excited to think about and process.

Crazy, right? We’ve always known certain books stick with us emotionally, and now we can track tangible ways they change our brain after we’ve finished reading. And that’s not all.

Sensory details transport you.

Berns and his co-authors also found heightened connectivity elsewhere in the brain: in the central sulcus, the sensory motor region. Neurons here make representations of sensation for the body, known as grounding cognition. For example, just thinking about swinging a baseball bat can activate the neurons that visualize the physical act of taking that swing.

When your brain reads about kicking a ball, or sprinting across a finish line, it doesn’t just comprehend it. It also fires the same neurons you’d use to actually kick or run!

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.

And this doesn’t just happen with descriptions of physical actions.

In a 2006 study published in NeuroImage journal, researchers in Spain asked volunteers to read words with strong odour associations while they were being scanned by an fMRI machine. Words like ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee’ lit up their olfactory cortex, but neutral words like ‘chair’ and ‘key’ didn’t have the same effect.

So, to our brains, reading about opening a jar of cinnamon and holding our noses over it, activates the part of our brain we use to interpret smell. This is why scent descriptors work so powerfully in writing. And it makes me curious—what else does our brain respond to?

I’m a tactile clothing shopper. I like to run a hand over the fabric before deciding whether or not to purchase a sweater. Texture is important to me and, it seems, it’s important to our brains as well. Consider these phrases: ‘The moss was velvety’ or ‘His hands were like sandpaper.’ Just reading those words activates your sensory cortex, the area of your brain responsible for deciphering texture through touch. But the phrases ‘The moss was soft’ or ‘His hands were rough’ leave that part of your brain dark because they’re not specific enough to activate your senses. If you want readers to really feel what you’re writing, be descriptive with sensory imagery.

Add it to the toolbox.

If you are a writer, you’ve probably been told to use strong verbs and to engage all of a reader’s senses to pull them in. Now we can pinpoint why our brains find strong, descriptive writing so engaging. Watch for opportunities to add physical movement, unique smells, tactile textures, and descriptive sounds to your writing. You can pull readers in, not just emotionally, but biologically too. You have the power to change minds.

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