What Our Brain Creates When We Read

January 9, 2017

When we read we imagine many things we are not told which creates our fantasy. For example, what do you see when you read this:”Planted in the middle of the river, your feet and your legs howl from pain. The blood would go up as fast as blood could rise, putting as much distance between her and the river as the blood could put.”(Tom Spanbauer – The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon).

To find out what is represented in our mind while reading, there is a wonderful book we want you to read: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund. This is a picture book that will help us dive into the reading process to find out the secrets of the paintings our mind draws when we read. How we imagine the characters and places because, really, we see with the mind not with the eyes.

Mendelsund is a philosopher and classical pianist who is also the art director of a major publisher and has designed some of the most striking book covers in recent years. His book What We See When We Read is an illustrated essay that examines what happens when we read. Laurence Sterne in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, defined in a very interesting way the collaboration between the writer and the reader in the process of imagining what we read:

“Writing […] is nothing more than a different name that is given to the conversation. And as no one who knows good company would dare to talk endlessly and say everything, neither will any author who understands well what the limits of decorum are and good manners he presumes to think. The largest and most sincere show of respect that can be given to the understanding of the reader is to share this task amiably with him and let him imagine something in turn, almost, as the author himself. “

-Laurence Sterne-

Mendelsund expands on the idea that we sometimes think that the reading process is like watching a movie. However, we see the characters or places with such definition because, in fact, when a book is brought to the movies we are usually disappointed when a character is given a particular appearance that we did not imagine.

Imagining characters

Many writers describe some aspects of the characters, but leave each reader to imagine the rest. Thus starts a collaboration between the reader and the writer, to create people, environments and situations from the words.

woman sitting reading a book and imagining

We all know the beginning of Moby Dick, with that enigmatic “Call me Ishmael.” It is a narrator who is doubtful because it seems that you do not know his name or doesn’t want to give it to us and suggests another name. But the point that Mendelsund raises is: How do we imagine the character of Ishmael?

We may imagine a face, a body, a look for that character with that opening sentence, but we will review it throughout the text to suit every detail the author give us.

On the other hand, although we have an image of the character at the beginning of a book, the picture changes. As the author gives us more physical or psychological details, an inner evolution occurs which can make him seem friendly or unfriendly.

We read inward or outward

Mendelsund argues that when we read we turn inward. However, we paradoxically become outward toward the book we are reading. In the act of reading, the world that I have before me and the world the book suggests overlap.

open book with a light in the middle

So, when we open the first page of a book we are at a threshold, as in the case of the beginning of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael”. It is perplexing because there are so many uncertainties that we seem to be in many places at once.

“The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive chugs, a fluctuation of pistons covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.”

-Italo Calvino-

As Meldensund says, good books encourage us to imagine in such a way that reading becomes an act of co-creation between the author and the reader. Therefore, reading is an act of imagination. A creation between the reader and the writer which allows us to give life to characters and stories to completely immerse ourselves in the world that the words suggest. We create images in our mind which is what it sees while our eyes simply read.

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