Your brain on books: research on reading

I write a lot about reading on this blog. As a reader, writer, and librarian I spend a lot of time around the written word in one form or another. In my work as a librarian, I encourage kids to read, introduce them to new authors or new genres, and share my love of books with them. In my role as parent, I have used books extensively. For whatever stage or phase my kids are going through, I think “there’s got to be a book for that” and I go find one. We’ve tackled trouble with friends, selfish behavior, fears, and myriad other issues by reading about characters who have faced similar struggles. Personally, at times I use bibliotherapy as a way to de-stress and tune out. At other times, I read to challenge myself to grow in a new way. Why do I do this? Because I know instinctively, as any avid reader does, that reading changes the way we think, feel, and see the world.

And now there’s scientific proof that we’re right! A study done at the University of Buffalo showed that reading fiction has a psychological effect on the reader. Students were asked to read excerpts from either Twilight or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and answer a series of questions that measured the readers’ self-identification with the characters. The study found that participants who read Harry Potter self-identified as wizards and participants who read Twilight self-identified as vampires. This finding suggests that reading fiction can increase the readers’ feelings of empathy.

Another study, this one done at Emory University, showed that reading a novel enhanced brain connectivity in the areas related to language and to the primary sensorimotor region. Specifically, it activated neurons that are associated with what is called embodied cognition, or the tricking of the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not. In other words, they found neurological evidence that reading transports us into the lives, world, or even body of the protagonist.

In doing so, we’re also, apparently, improving something called our Theory of Mind, which is “the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.”  Additional research performed at the New School for Social Research  also concluded that reading literary fiction improved Theory of Mind, compared with readers of popular fiction or non-fiction.

Empirical research at Erasmus University Rotterdam concluded that reading fiction can increase empathy, defined as the cognitive and intellectual ability to recognize the emotions of other persons and to emotionally respond to other persons, and that this effect can be manifested both immediately and over time. Interestingly, these studies found these effects only when students were “transported” by what they read. Students who reported not being “transported” showed no increase in empathy.

I think this research is interesting. Not necessarily mind-blowing, but interesting. It confirms what we instinctively already knew. Reading fiction has a positive effect on our lives, can influence how we interact with others, and change how we view ourselves in the world. The research also indicated the need to write well in order to touch the lives of our readers. We want to transport them, affect them emotionally, and give them something to mentally linger over after they have closed the book. Guess it’s time I got back to work on that.

Until next time, read on…..


About Katherine J. Scott

Welcome to my website and blog. I am a writer and librarian interested in historical fiction. My works in progress include a trilogy about a stonemason from Elizabethan England and a novel loosely based on the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries housed at the Cloisters in New York.
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