The idea of getting lost in a good book takes on a whole new meaning in light of recent brain-imaging research that shows that when people read, their brains respond as if they were taking the same actions as the characters in the story.
Psychology Assistant Professor Jeremy Reynolds co-authored the study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science in August. He and three other researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track real-time brain activity as participants read and processed short stories.
“The results give us insight into how we understand stories,” Reynolds says. “When we think about virtual reality, we tend to think that it requires expensive, high-tech machinery, when text may provide us with all of the stimulation that we need.”
Nicole Speer, lead author of the study, says the findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise.
“These results suggest that readers use perceptual and motor representations in the process of comprehending narrated activity, and these representations are dynamically updated at points where relevant aspects of the situation are changing,” says Speer, a research associate with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Mental Health Program in Boulder, Colo.
“Readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change,” Speer says.
In the study, Reynolds and colleagues used fMRI to look for evidence of mental simulation during the reading of extended stories. Each participant read four stories of less than 1,500 words excerpted from a simple 1940s-era book about the daily activities of a young boy.
Participants were shown text passages on a computer screen that displayed one word at a time; reading all four stories took most participants about 40 minutes.
The researchers had carefully coded the stories so that they knew when important features of the story were changing.
This is what they found: Changes in the objects a character interacted with (e.g., “pulled a light cord”) were associated with activity increases in a region in the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions.
Changes in characters’ locations (e.g., “went through the front door into the kitchen”) were associated with increases in regions in the temporal lobes that are selectively activated when people view pictures of spatial scenes.
Overall, the data supported the view that readers construct mental simulations of events when reading stories.
Reynolds hopes to build on this research by collaborating with DU psychology Professor Janice Keenan, who studies reading disabilities.
“It’s possible children with reading disabilities are not using the same types of simulation processes to understand stories,” Reynolds says. “Observing their responses to such narratives might help us to better understand these disorders.”
In addition to Reynolds and Speer, the other co-authors of the study are Jeffrey Zacks, associate professor of psychology and radiology at Washington University in St. Louis, and Khena Swallow, a post-doctoral associate in psychology at the University of Minnesota.