Your Brain on Books

When hubby and I commute together (either to and from work, or for the past seven weeks, to and from the NICU), we always have NPR on.  Hubby’s a fan, and I will tune in now and again when there’s a story that causes my ears to perk up.  Usually, though, I have my nose buried deep in a book and I don’t hear a word of the radio programs, prompting many conversations that go like this:

Hubby makes a joke or comment that’s related to the radio story that’s playing.  Thirty seconds to a minute of silence go by.  I say: “Huh?  What?  I’m sorry; I wasn’t paying attention.”

Thing is, when I’m into a book – I mean, really into it – I actually don’t hear what’s going on around me.  Seriously, World War III could break out right in front of me and I’d be oblivious.  I call it “reading-induced deafness.”  Then on one recent trip to the NICU, a story came on that actually made me put down my book, sit up and take notice: a woman was talking about getting so absorbed in her reading that “I really think the house could possibly burn down around me and I wouldn’t notice.”  Well hello there, soulmate.

The speaker was one Natalie Phillips, a professor of 18th- and 19th-century literature who came up with an idea to study the theme of distractability in Jane Austen’s novels.  This project snowballed into a study of the neurological effects of “close reading” (similar to “deep attention reading” that I’ve talked about before) as opposed to “browsing” (described as the type of reading you’d do while standing and flipping through a selection in a bookstore).  I’ll let you read the details of the story for yourself, but it basically boils down to this: the subjects showed greater activity, over a range of areas of the brain, when doing the “close reading” than they did when “browsing.”  And my favorite part:

Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.

How cool!  Do you ever feel like you know the characters in your favorite books?  Or like you’ve been there and experienced the story with them?  Felt the cold winds whipping along the moors in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, for example, or the soft warm sunshine along Lover’s Lane in Anne of Green Gables, for example?  Well, maybe – and the story was careful to stress that the results are preliminary – it’s because you actually have been there, because your mind is even more adept at creating the place and experiencing the sensations of a book than we ever realized.  I love that!  Books are so much more than just words on a page – they’re friends, experiences.  (Man, how I wish I could see a map of the brain all lit up while a reader is deep into a book.  Would that not be the coolest?)

I’ve always thought it was a bit of a personal character flaw quirk of mine that I fail to pay attention to my surroundings when I’m really into something I’m reading.  But apparently I’m not alone (yay) and I’m not checked out of reality or incredibly self-involved (double yay) – I’m in the midst of some hardcore brain calisthenics!  Professor Natalie Phillips, you have made my day.  Now, could you please call my mother and tell her that I’m actually not an airhead?  kthanksbye.

Read the article for yourself, and then tell me – are you one of those people who gets so absorbed in a book that you could sit in a burning house and not notice?

6 thoughts on “Your Brain on Books

  1. Interesting post. I don’t think I could become THAT distracted while a fire was going on — I think the smoke alarms or sirens would jolt me out of it.

    I prefer utter silence when I read for fun; otherwise, it’s difficult to concentrate. But in my work as an editor, I have learned to tune out distractions so that I can work.

    You an airhead? Naaaah. I think you and Rory Gilmore would have a lot in common in terms of not being distracted while reading. 😉

    • Ahhhh, Rory! I miss “Gilmore Girls” – such a great show (especially the first five seasons; I thought something got lost the last two years, but that’s a topic for another post).

      Some books, I need utter silence. I read THE DEAN’S DECEMBER while working on a long-term project at an airport this past winter, and I think I missed a LOT in the parts I read over my lunch break, while sitting in the terminal listening to flights be announced and travelers rush by. I finished the book on a Saturday at home in the quiet of my house and got so much more out of it then. But most books, I do get completely absorbed and only realize when I come up for air that hours have gone by and I’ve totally missed everything that’s happened around me!

  2. On one level, your physical eye is ingesting the words on the page. On another level, your mind’s eye is creating the elaborate mis-en-scene and the action the author is describing, and your ear is listening to the dialogue–and your inner voice may even be interrupting with what the character should be saying, or really means.

    Who has time for house fires?

    • Exactly!

      Reading is really the best hobby. I hope Peanut enjoys it as much as I do! With all that activity, how could she not?

  3. What an interesting post! Finally someone came up with evidence that book reading is NOT a passive activity. I am tired of people asking me: But you only read? What other active hobbies do you have?

    Seeing a map of the human brain all lit up while a person is reading – that would be brilliant! I would love to see that, too!

    I do get absorbed in my books, and feel that I am there with the characters, acting out the story, but I do get distracted by things around me that demand my attention.

    • Oh, I’d be so irritated if people asked me if I “only” read! Reading is such a wonderful hobby. It brings us joy and expands our horizons – what more could anyone want?


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