Friday, March 30, 2012

How Brains Respond to Reading

Rejoice, bibliophiles! Recent neuroscience research suggests that reading fiction is more than just enjoyable; it can stimulate the brain in valuable ways and even positively affect a person’s behavior and social cognition. A recent article in the New York Times explains several fascinating phenomena discovered by scientists. 

Interestingly, reading words can activate parts of our brain usually reserved for handing input that our senses gather from the outside world. In one study, simply reading words referring to materials that people detect with their olfactory sense like “cinnamon” caused the areas of the brain that process smell to “light up.” In a different study, subjects saw words associated with smells (like “coffee”) and words associated with objects that have no strong smell (like “key”). Brain scans showed that the olfactory cortex responded only to the words associated with scents. Similarly, reading metaphors that evoke one’s tactile sense (e.g. “his leathery hands”) caused responses in the sensory cortex of test subjects’ brains. “The brain, it seems,” the article concludes, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”  

Similarly, our brains react to the social situations presented in novels in much the same way they respond to the social situations we encounter in our daily lives. Understanding stories causes people to engage the same skills they use to figure out what makes their friends and family feel certain emotions or behave in a certain way. One study even found that increased exposure to fiction was correlated with better social skills, like empathy and interpersonal understanding. Similar findings emerged in a study of preschool children: Those who had more stories read to them tended to have stronger social skills and a better understanding of the people around them.

Most of us know that reading to young children, or encouraging older ones to read their own books, is valuable for myriad reasons. Neuroscience has just handed us another.

photo from Difei Li

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