DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia Updated February 26, 2009 12:00 AM
Folks, it has been scientifically confirmed: you read in order to live. Those words attributed to novelist Gustav Flaubert are often seen printed in quaint bookmarks or publishing house signs. Now, they have also been seen in your brains.
You guessed it. Scientists looked inside the brains of people who were asked to read stories and they found that whatever they read, their brains showed they were processing it in parts as if they were doing it in real life. In other words, the subjects were simulating the scenes they were reading, in their minds.
The lead author of the study is Nicole Speer, while among his co-authors was Jeffrey M. Zacks, associate professor of Washington University in St. Louis. Their study appears in the next issue of the journal Psychological Science. In the study, they scanned the brains of people in fMRI machines while asking them to read four stories of about 1,500 words culled from a 1940s’ book about the daily tasks of a young boy named Raymond. Because the participants are not allowed to move while in the fMRI machine, they did not use an actual book but used a computer screen to display one word at a time. Each participant took about 40 minutes to finish.
I listened to Dr. Zacks’ interview in NPR. He said that this proves that when you read a scene, it is “significantly like being there.” This finding gives us back the power of the original virtual reality we each are endowed with: our imagination. It has been proven before that when you imagine an object, your brain part lights up for that image as if you were looking at the real thing so that an imagined apple and a real apple are eerily the same apple — neurologically. This study extends it to even animated scenes so that the motor parts of the brain are activated when the text states an action scene and other scenes evoking visual, smell and tastes also summoned the “real” in their brains.
I was especially struck by what Dr. Zack said about language. He said that we always think that “virtual reality is something that involves fancy computers and helmets and gadgets” but now with these findings, we see that “language itself is a powerful form of virtual reality” that “when we tell each other stories, we can control the perceptual processes that happen in each other’s brains.” This means that you need not play virtual reality games to safely rehearse living! Reading could serve as some sort of mental activity workbook where you are able to go in and out of your many selves safely through language, without the threat of being obligated to don a straightjacket in your size. Through reading, you can put yourselves in several situations and never have them destroy you when you make a wrong move. This gives us some sort of built-in online training for the whole enterprise of living. It also affirms that reading is not a substitute for living but perhaps another side of it, and even serves it.
If I had a bookstore, I would post this everywhere to encourage people to read. Readers and writers have always known this about the power of language. But now science has given us pictures of our own brains to prove it: reading simulates life for real life! Lure them to read and you lure them to live!