What Happens to Your Brain When You Read? (or Listen to an Audiobook?)

October 6, 2017

As a writer, I love to read—fiction, nonfiction, blogs, the back of cereal boxes and, of course, the liner notes on those old vinyl record albums.  I also download audiobooks, because sometimes at night, I’m tired and I want to rest my eyes and let someone else read to me.  It’s comforting and it’s relaxing.  The other night I had a thought: What happens to my brain when I read or when I listen to an audiobook?

Here are some of the things I learned:

  1. Your brain adapts to reading e-books in seven days (it’s called spatial navigability)

  2. The act of listening to a story can light up your brain

  3. Reading changes your brain structure (in a good way)

  4. Different styles of reading create different patterns in the brain

  5. New languages can grow your brain

  6. Story structure encourages your brain to think in sequence, expanding your attention span

  7. Deep reading makes you more empathetic

  8. According to researcher Jeremy Hsu, “Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

According to the OEBD Open Education Database, when we read, we make photos in our minds, even without being prompted. Reading books and other materials with rich imagery lets us create worlds in our own minds.  Researchers have found that visual imagery is automatic.  When we read a sentence, we automatically bring up pictures of objects in our minds.

 

Reading about an experience is almost the same as living it.  Have you ever felt so completely connected to a story that it’s as if you experienced it in real life?

 

According to experts, when we read, the brain does not make a real distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it.  The same neurological regions are stimulated.  Reading is the original virtual reality experience, at least for our brains.

 

Most any kind of reading provides stimulation for your brain, but different types of reading give different experiences with varying benefits.  Researchers from Stanford University have found that close literary reading gives your brain a workout in multiple complex cognitive functions.  Pleasure reading increases blood flow to different areas of the brain.

 

Okay, so what about audiobooks?  Researchers have also found that the spoken word lights up our sensory cortex and puts our brains to work, in a good way. When we’re told a story, not only are language processing parts of our brain activated, experiential parts of our brain come alive, too.

Finally, story structure encourages our brains to think in sequence, expanding our attention spans.  Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s a good thing for your brain. With this structure, our brains are encouraged to think in sequence, linking cause and effect.

 

Neuroscientists encourage parents to read to their kids as much as possible.  They say you will be instilling story structure in their young minds, while their brain develops flexibility and a longer attention span.

 

So, it’s okay to listen to your coworkers’ endless stories about their vacations, to tune in to talk radio if you dare, and to listen to an audiobook in your car: it’s all good exercise for your brain.

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