Reading Addict: The Scientific Effects Of A Damn Good Book On Your Brain

by Lauren Martin

What does it feel like when you read?

It feels like how I imagine falling down a black hole would feel: a slow drop through the pocket of another dimension, like diving into some transient realm, a secret pocket you narrowly squeezed into as the universe folded in on itself.

You don’t know how you got there, just that you must have tripped over it, fell into it, straight through the slippery portal of words and metaphors.

The fall is gradual, the way you gain momentum going down a slide or diving into a pool. You forget who you are.

Your memories, fears, aches, anxieties and everything attached to your soul melts away in the way ink disperses in water. You become as blank as the once-empty pages.

But then it’s no longer blank -- it’s colorful, abstract and real. You become part of a world as real and abstract as your own. You stare at life through the eyes of another.

You walk around in clothes not your own. You develop new fears and joys. You feel for people and things as much as you feel for those in your own life. It’s like being native in a foreign land.

There’s no way all these things can occur without something happening to your brain. Any true reader knows reading a book isn’t just a hobby, but a lifestyle.

In Annie Murphy Paul's New York Times article, "Your Brain on Fiction," new research proves "stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life."

Stories aren't just a passive downtime; they're a life-changing process -- not without their fair share of side effects. You develop strong, clinically-inducible symptoms that can only stem from a strong addiction to reading.

We see and smell things that aren't there

Is there anything more arousing than the perfect description? Is there anything more exciting than smelling something not there? Good writing has the power of sensory stimulation — where we can literally smell the roses and feel the punches.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s “Metaphors We Live By” examined the power of metaphors, stating:

The metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects.

When we read a good metaphor, areas of our brain associated with smell and touch literally light up, the same way they would if we were to feel a leather glove or touch a hot pot.

We have a sensory experience that allows us to smell things and taste things that aren't really there.

We have fake friends

Fictional characters are not fictional at all. We carry them with us, the same way we do memories of loved ones.

You may be reading about a woman made up in the mind of another, but the fears, aches and pains she experiences on the page are so real, they may as well be your own.

We've gone through deaths, breakups, heartache and loneliness with these "people." These "fictional characters" teach us to be human.

Reading about the struggles and triumphs of fictional characters has the power to make us understand our own struggles and the struggles of those around us better.

Through reading, we develop a strong "theory of mind," which enables us to understand and comprehend the emotional cues of others as if we were experiencing the emotions ourselves.

According to Paul, there's evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, it also treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

We become different people

Reading is where we learn empathy. It’s where we become better humans. It’s where fake worlds teach us about the real one.

In "Your Brain On Fiction," Paul acknowledges studies published by Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar of the University of Toronto describing how good fiction, with its rich metaphors and detailed descriptions, "produces a vivid simulation of reality." It's a replica as close to real life as it gets.

Oatley also believes readers seem to be "better able to understand other people.” It may just seem like a small byproduct, but what if everyone in the world read more? Could it have the power to erase sexism, racism, hatred?

In a similar study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, Raymond Mar studied fMRI scans to prove there's an overlap between the brain networks used to understand stories and those used to actually interact with fellow humans.

We learn how to deal with certain situations based on what we've read.

Time travel is real

According to the study by the same researchers at Emory University, the neural changes created by good metaphors and the social connection created by fiction suggest reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.

Described by Oatley as an experience offering people "the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings."

Only reading can change your brain so much you literally feel like you're in another world. Only fiction has the power to physically change your state of mind.

Only a good book can change your life and make you believe you're experiencing life in another dimension.

You are, somehow, more whole than everyone else.