Reading and the Brain: Have You Heard About What Reading Does to Your Brain?

Reading and the Brain: Have You Heard About What Reading Does to Your Brain?
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Some things have the power to make positive changes in your brain. One of them is the act of reading, and it does some really fascinating things to your brain. What do we know about reading and the brain?While not every book has this power, various studies say that reading stories about characters, real or fictional, is maybe one of the most transformative activities you can do.

In today’s world, many people are wondering what literature is even good for. They say you can get the same benefits from watching a movie, and more easily. A book and all of the words it contains have to compete against special effects. Not everyone reaches the point when reading where they feel like they’re in the story themselves. Hence, they prefer to see the story play out on a screen.

“The art of reading is, in great measure, the art of rediscovering life within books and understanding life even better because of them.”
-André Maurois-

However, it’s clear that reading is a very different experience than going to the movies. First of all, reading demands higher levels of concentration, abstraction, and imagination. Secondly, the changes it makes in the brain are much more intense and long-lasting. Let’s see what experts have to say about it…

Reading and the brain: changes in perception

Your perception of the world changes when you read. According to Keith Oatley, professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto, reading a well-described scene is equivalent to watching it in a movie.

Reading and the brain: a man is reading a book on a cloud of steam from many coffee cups.

Your mind draws from remembered objects similar to the ones described in the scene. It’s kind of like creating a mental photograph. Therefore, many processes are working all at the same time. The processes involve memory, perception, and creativity.

After reading several scenes with detailed descriptions, we can then create an album of scenes. The album is unique to each individual and nontransferable. Your mind coordinates all of these elements, making associations between what you’re reading and what you know. This produces changes in your brain in terms of perception and intelligence.  

Reading and the brain: reading is the same as experiencing

Researcher Raymond Mar, doctor of psychology from York University, went even further. According to his studies on the subject, everything seems to indicate that the brain doesn’t distinguish well between the things it has experienced and the things it has read about. Something similar happens when you’re watching a movie, but with reading, it’s a more intimate, deep experience. It makes much bigger changes in the brain.

Woman with book gazing out a train window.

Our brains behave similarly when we imagine a story and when we truly experience it. Dr. Mar said that when one reads about an action that a character is doing, the same areas required to carry out those actions also activate in our brain. In other words, we experience the reading of a story as if we were the actual character.

These changes produced within the brain have even been located with neuroimaging tests. For example, when a character is walking, the areas of motor function associated with walking are activated in the brain.

We literally experience what we read, and it’s all due to one particular type of neuron: mirror neurons. Yes, the same neurons that make us, for example, mimic a yawn when we see someone else yawn. The ones that make a baby smile when someone smiles at her.

Reading and the brain… and empathy

Researchers have focused a lot on the changes that reading makes in the brain in regard to empathy. First of all, they have detected that the areas of the brain used to read and understand the actions of certain characters are the same ones used to understand other people. At the end of the day, the underlying process of both experiences is one that involves communication.

Thus, on one hand, we experience what the character does as if we were the ones doing it. On the other hand, we also improve our ability to understand others, to link situations and emotions. In conclusion: reading is a way to practice and nourish empathy. One way or another, we change our point of view when we read the narration of a story.


A paper boat made out of a page from a book.

Dr. Mars gives a clear example of this. He cites the example of a character with a handicap. I f the character’s experiences are narrated in enough detail, at some point we’ll understand how they feel. This is true even if we don’t have any kind of limitation of our own. In other words, we learn how to step into another person’s shoes.

These are just a few of the benefits reading has to offer. Dozens and dozens of changes are produced in the brain when we sit down with a book and let ourselves get immersed in its story. A good read transforms us. It helps us grow, connect with the rest of humanity, and even get smarter.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.