Reading as Virtual Reality

This is interesting.  Psychologists Nicole Speer and Jeffrey Zacks conducted a study of reading using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  Basically, these researchers used imaging technology to look at what our brains are doing while we read a story.  They found that some of the same regions of the brain are active for the reader as would be active for someone actually experiencing the events in the text.  In other words, our brains create simulations of what we’re reading, a virtual reality of our own making.

Reading really can take you someplace else.  And it lets you experience something you otherwise might not.  In some cases (historical fiction, for example), a book is the closest we can get to the real thing.  This is something librarians and teachers have been telling young readers for a long time.  This is something familiar to anyone who has ever been brought to tears by a book, either of laughter or grief.  Anyone who has ever been brought to their feet by a character’s triumph and victory.  Anyone who has ever been reluctant to turn out the light and chills at strange noises in the dark.  This is something that anyone who reads can relate to.

These findings also suggest that reading about a fictional thing might actually prepare us for the real deal should we ever encounter it, providing evidence for how profound and transformative the experience of reading can be, perhaps even altering the structure of our brains in a manner similar to the way a real experience would.

Science has shown us that what we read really can become a part of who we are.


One response to “Reading as Virtual Reality”

  1. My take on it is that we intuitively knew that was the case all along. It didn’t take a functional MRI to know it. Although, now that science is gathering the data, I can’t say that I mind it

    My daughter, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, has had functional MRIs in an attempt to hone in on where her seizures begin. For many who suffer epilepsy, this procedure is able to isolate areas within the brain sufficiently so that surgery can be performed to remove parts of the brain and eliminate or substantially reduce the number of seizures a person has. Unfortunately, in my daughter’s case, the locations her seizures begin are to diffuse to help her. Anyway, sorry about getting off-track for a minute there.

    I suppose, historically, our intuition relative to knowing such a thing was taking place also led some people in authority to try to banish reading or to limit it, because, as well as taking a person to places of delight and allowing them to experience wonderful stories, it can also take them places of temptation, misery, and hell.

    I hope we are constantly vigilant of what people in authority do with such information with respect to freedom to read and to know and to experience.

    Banish the book burners.

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