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Want to Explore Virtual Reality? Try Reading a Book

By , black-rose-bielefeld.de GuideFebruary 6, 2009

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In a recent edition of NPR's All Things Considered, psychologist Jeff Zacks, associate professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, discussed his new study exploring what happens in the brain when we read a book. In the study to be published in the journal Psychological Science, Zacks and lead researcher Nicole Speer utilized brain-imaging to look at what happens inside the brains of participants while they read. What they discovered is that as people read, the creation of vivid mental representations activated the same areas of the brain that process similar real life experiences.

Reading as virtual reality
Books - The original virtual reality.
Photo © cindiann

In other words, you are constructing a virtual reality of your own inside of your head every time you read.

According to Zacks, "We're used to thinking that virtual reality is something that involves fancy computers, helmets and gadgets, but what these kind of data suggest is that language itself is a powerful form of virtual reality. That there's an important sense in which when we tell each other stories that we can control the perceptual processes that are happening in each others brains."

As participants read short stories, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe brain activity. Earlier research suggests that when people read individual words or phrases that describe motor movements or visual information, the areas of the brain that process visual and motor information during real experiences are activated. However, these previous studies did not indicate if such activity would be present when reading longer passages or full-length stories. In the present study, participants read four stories of 1500 words or less that were shown on a screen one word at a time at a reasonable pace.

Stories were coded so that researchers could identify important features of the story and evaluate the results on the brain-imaging scans. The results indicated that specific actions in the story, such as performing a motor action, activated the relevant area of the brain associated with performing that action in real life. So, when the character in the story "pulled a light cord," brain activity increased in the frontal lobes, an area associated with controlling grasping motions. When the story described entering a kitchen, increases were seen in the areas of the temporal lobe that are activated when people look at pictures of spatial scenes.

Speer suggests that these finding reveal that reading is by no means a passive process. "Readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change," she explains.

Another implication of the study is that reading about an experience or situation may actually prepare you for that situation in real life. "There has been good evidence for a while that mental simulation - imagination - can improve performance in sport and other skilled behaviors. This study suggests that readers do mental simulation when they comprehend a story," Zacks explains. "It could well be that the simulations we perform when reading function like skilled practice. I was reading a cooking magazine last night, and I certainly hope that helps me get better with a whisk."

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