Getting Lost in a Good Book

bookshelves: Literature and Psychology

Getting Lost in a Good Book: Scientific Research on Reading

Have you ever gotten so absorbed in reading a novel that you lost track of time and of what was happening around you—-even, in fact, that there was a world around you outside of the one you were reading about? Most serious readers have had this experience, and science is trying to learn exactly how and why it happens.

Here’s the Scientific Reason Why You Get Lost in a Book describes recent research on the fiction feeling hypothesis. Scientists used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study the brains of people who had read particular passages from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Some participants read “narratives with emotional contents,” which the study abstract describes as “fear-inducing … descriptions of protagonists’ pain or personal distress.”

The experiment found that readers of fear-inducing passages exhibited more “involvement of the core structure of pain and affective empathy” in the brain than did readers of neutral passages. The researchers concluded “the immersive experience was particularly facilitated by the motor component of affective empathy.”

The Bustle article, which says that the study report does not specify what passages from Harry Potter books were used in the research, offers a couple of passages from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that it thinks illustrate the difference between the two kinds of writing. The article goes on to say that this research “does showcase how books not only teach empathy, but the types of writing that can boost empathy even more.”

A novel look at how stories may change the brain reports on a 2013 study from Emory University:

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

The study focused on changes in the brain that linger after people read a narrative. Participants read Pompeii, a 2003 novel by Robert Harris chosen because “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way.” Over nine days participants read a passage from the novel in the evening, then underwent a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scan the following morning:

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

The researchers also noticed increased connectivity in areas of the brain associated with making representations of sensation for the body. (This is a phenomenon long recognized in sports: that visualizing an activity such as running, skiing, or swimming activates the neurons associated with that physical action.)

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

This study showed that the neural effects of reading persisted for five days. Further research is necessary to determine exactly how long these neural effects last. But, Berns says, these results suggest that “your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

A 2012 study (“Losing Yourself” in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life) found: “When you ‘lose yourself’ inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behavior and thoughts to match that of the character”:

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

According to Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about.” But experience-taking can only occur when people are able “to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading”—in other words, when they get lost in a book.

Not unexpectedly, one part of this research found that participants identified most strongly with protagonists in a story narrated in first person by a character the participants consider to be similar to themselves. The researchers then wondered what would happen if readers didn’t learn that a character was not similar to themselves until late in the story. To find out, they divided 70 heterosexual male students into three groups. Each group read one of three versions of the same story: “one in which the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one in which the student was identified as gay late in the story, and one in which the character was heterosexual.” Students who learned early in the story that the character was gay reported little or no experience-taking. But students who had read the version of the story that reveals the character as gay late in the narrative reported the same level of experience-taking as students who had read about a heterosexual character.

The research revealed a more significant finding:

Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.

“If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views – the readers accepted that this character was like them,” Kaufman said.

Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says that experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, in which people try to imagine another person’s thoughts without losing sight of themselves: “Experience-taking is much more immersive – you’ve replaced yourself with the other.”

The other important aspect of such immersive experience-taking is that it’s spontaneous: it happens naturally under the right circumstance. And it’s a process that happens outside of our conscious awareness, which is exactly why we call it getting lost in a good book.

In a 2013 article (How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation) researchers from The Netherlands reported on studies exploring what they call transportation theory. They hypothesized that when people read fiction and are emotionally transported into the story, they become more empathic. Their results supported this hypothesis: “Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story.” People who were not emotionally transported into the story and others who read nonfiction instead of fiction did not exhibit increased empathy.

So what does all this research on the phenomenon of getting lost in a good book mean? What Hephzibah Anderson says in a recent article for the BBC (Bibliotherapy: Can you read yourself happy?) seems to sum it all up: “We think of novels as places in which to lose ourselves, but when we emerge, we take with us inspiration from our favourite characters.” Our experiences reading fiction can change both our attitude and our behavior toward people who are different from ourselves.