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Thursday, March 28, 2013

This is your brain on books...

Not actual scans of brains reading, but still cool! NIH images.
Posted by Alana T.

One of the fastest growing branches of neuroscience relates to what our brain is doing when we read.  We may think we know what's going on in there, but it has been notoriously difficult to obtain data to support or refute hypotheses.

A recent study elucidates the process of silent reading.  As kids, as we learn to read, we speak the words out loud.  Later, we read in our heads (although, some people continue to either move their lips or whisper very quietly), imagining a voice speaking the words.  What is going on inside our heads and what is the order of events?  Scientists worked with a small group of people who happened to have electrodes implanted in specific parts of their brains for other medical purposes.  The people both read and listened to recordings; at the same time, they were getting MRIs.  The results?  In short, when you read, your auditory cortex (the part of your brain that interprets sound) is active; specifically, the part that is responsible for processing language.  The evidence suggests that, as we read, we are 'creating' a voice inside our heads, then we 'listen to' that voice.  It's as if we have our own personal audiobook narrator.

Other studies suggest that when we read,  parts of our brains become engaged with concepts relating to  plot, setting and character.  Scientists have investigated brain activity using procedures similar to those described above.  When volunteers read about scents, actions or views, the parts of their brains responsible for smell, motor control and visual comprehension become active.  When reading about characters and their interactions, the areas in the brain that deal with social and emotional comprehension became engaged.  Some research indicates that reading novels helps us in real life; "individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective."  So reading Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter isn't just entertainment, it helps us deal with real life social situations - who knew?

Keep your brain healthy and read as many books as you can.  Come visit at the library and we'll help you find something to flex your mental muscles.  See you soon!

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