If you’re an avid reader, you’ve probably had a moment when your book felt more real than the world around you. Curled in a favorite spot, you may have felt almost as if you were in Narnia, had traveled through middle-earth with Frodo Baggins, or felt Holden Caufield’s adolescent confusion and angst.
Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips frequently had such experiences. She would become so lost in a book that the world around her would feel less real than the world created in the novel she read.
Curious as to how this distraction — or perhaps more accurately, absorption in a book — affected the brain, she decided to conduct a study.
Phillips teamed up with neuroscientists from Stanford University to determine if there were differences in brain activity between, casual, somewhat distracted skimming vs. captivated and engaged reading.
What did they find?
She and her collaborators hypothesized that the brain would show minor differences between the two types of reading, primarily in the area that is connected with attention. That is, they predicted that the area of the brain associated with attention would be more activated during engaged reading than during skimming.
What they found (and are still currently finding, as the study is not yet complete) was somewhat surprising. Brain activity during the skimming and distracted reading was as they anticipated, but brain activity during engaged reading was more global than expected.
When reading in a focused and engaged manner, a number of different brain regions are transformed, including those associated with touch and movement. Phillips suggests that it is as though readers are placing themselves within the story as they read it.
This study adds to a growing body of research on attention and the brain. In the new interdisciplinary field of literary neuroscience, researchers are studying the rhythm of poetry and how metaphor activates sensory regions of the brain.
Meditation has long been studied to better understand how sustaining attention and focus affects the brain. Studies on mindfulness meditation, for example, show that parts of the brain associated with positive mood are activated with the practice of focusing attention.
This new study, demonstrating the global impact of engaged reading on the brain, is another step toward understanding some of the mysteries of our minds. It seems books actually can take us to the far reaches of the world.
With advances in brain imaging technology, we are beginning to understand more and more about how everyday activities affect the brain, influence behavior and have an impact on our thoughts and emotions. Focused attention appears to bring a different quality to our experience.
Today we often find ourselves making quick decisions, responding to competing demands and splitting our attention between multiple activities. The more we understand about the brain, the more clear it becomes that multi-tasking and splitting attention has an impact on our minds that is very different than that of focused attention.
If you want to experience another world, skimming or reading while being constantly interrupted by outside stimuli simply won’t have the same effect. You have to carve out a quiet space for prolonged reading and sustained attention.