Reading lights up your brain like a Christmas tree.
by Jessica Stillman
“It turns out when we’re immersed in a great book, it’s not just the parts of the brain that deal with language processing that are hard at work. In fact, when we’re deeply engaged with a story our brains mirror the actions and feelings of the characters. So if someone in the novel you can’t put down is swimming, the sections of your brain that would light up if you yourself were paddling across a pool also activate.”
When we read a piece of fiction ‘closely,’ we activate regions of the brain that are aligned to what the characters are both feeling and doing.”*
We don’t just understand a book.
On a neurological level we live it.
“Or, in other words, when you read about Anna Karenina leaping onto the railroad tracks, parts of your brain involved in motor control quite literally leap with her. When you read about a silky dress or rustling leaves, sections of your brain dealing with sensory perception activate. At a basic brain level we really do experience the same thing the characters do.”
An incredible empathy workout.
‘”When we read fiction, the brain actively simulates the consciousness of another person, including those whom we would never otherwise even imagine knowing. It allows us to try on, for a few moments, what it truly means to be another person. “
Stop skimming and really sink into a good book.
“It should be noted, however, this only applies to old-school deep reading — the kind where you get totally lost in a book — which is just the kind of reading our pinging screens are putting in jeopardy. If you’re just skimming for information or reading one of 15 open tabs on your browser, your brain doesn’t activate in the same way. You might learn facts, but you’re not gaining empathy.”
“There are many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books . . . What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin? It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding.”
“So make time this week to put all your distractions and devices aside and submerge yourself in a great book. Such deep reading nurtures true empathetic connection to your fellow humans. In these difficult and lonely times, who couldn’t use a little more of that?”
*Natalie Phillips, scholar of 18th-century literature teamed with Stanford neuroscientists