Your Brain When You Read - What Happens

Some say that reading transports you to other worlds and, at the same time, offers you the possibility of adopting other roles. In addition, today we know that many processes occur in the brain when you read that have to do with it. Below, we explain how they work.
Your Brain When You Read - What Happens
María Vélez

Written and verified by the psychologist María Vélez.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Your brain when you read is full of stimuli, as this activity provides a lot of benefits in the short and long term. For instance, it reduces stress, improves sleep quality, increases your vocabulary and memory, and it even leads to greater intelligence. However, few people know what exactly goes on in their brains when they read.

In general, reading is a process of decoding words that ultimately lead to meaning. And from the point of view of research, it’s interesting to know all the small processes that take place at the same time. This is so scientists can identify all the steps and help people with learning disabilities.

Until recently, finding out in real-time what processes took place in a brain when a person read was really difficult. Now, neuroscience allows you to see brain activity during the course of a task. All thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging and other techniques. In addition, more globally, neuroscience has an interest in knowing the relationship between reading and cognition, emotion, learning, and cognitive performance.

A person reading.

Your brain when you read – from words to meaning

It only takes 400 milliseconds for the brain to activate in the left posterior area after encountering a printed word. This is where the areas of spelling and phonological coding live. If you already know the word, then morphological, syntactic, and semantic identification occurs immediately.

Morphological recognition is the most basic process. Whereby, thanks to the activation of left frontal areas of the brain, you can recognize the letters that form the word, and then identify it. Similarly, when it comes to syntactic recognition, you can recognize if it’s a name or a verb and if it refers to the past, present or future. Thus, your brain creates relationships between words to be able t0 recognize them later.

These processes take place in different areas of the brain, in a parallel and interconnected way. Thus, taking into account the process we described above, the visual cortex activates when you see a word. Then, it transfers to the angular rotation.

At this time, it becomes a phonetic representation sent to the previous fusiform gyrus. After that, it moves to the temporal and frontal regions, such as the Wernicke area, the future access of meaning and understanding of the words. That is when you find the meaning information and morphological identification again in the lower anterior frontal gyrus to integrate.

Text comprehension

Once you understand the words you read, it’s time to analyze their semantic and syntactic relationships. For example, the order the words maintain, the tenses, complements, and information about the subject, etc.

This syntactic type processing seems to take place in the left frontal and anterior temporal lobes. Then, it moves to the lower left turn for thematic and syntactic processing. This one has more to do with the subject-verb interaction. Also, with the evaluation of the semantic intention of the complete sentence.

At the same time, the mechanisms that detect incongruence or novelty effects pertaining to the inferior frontal cortex happen. In this case, there’s a higher activation of this area when you read incongruous phrases than when you read something coherent.

The understanding of what you read is also related to memory since, in order to access broader meanings, you must get a hold of your experience. For example, some temporal regions of the brain activate only when you read information related to people and tools.

In this regard, a research group from South Carolina and California found that words evoke connections with the real world in a study with functional magnetic resonance. That is, they activate areas in the same way as if they experienced them. An example is that words with a meaning related to something manipulable led to the activation of areas related to the planning and execution of tasks or that involved motor areas.

Emotional and cognitive processing

Emotions are the result of a brain process located mainly in the limbic system. The hypothalamus is in this area. This brain region is rather involved in memory and learning. Therefore, emotion is a fundamental process to consolidate any new information.

In addition, the emotion during reading activates attentional networks. In fact, there are specific mechanisms for emotional lexicon. Scientists observed that reading emotionally charged words, be it erotic or rude, causes an increase in the time spent by the person attending to them, compared to neutral words. Therefore, emotionally stimulating stories are also useful for activating motivational and attentional networks.

In this regard, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior dorsal cingulate cortex activate as you read. In other words, you can start processes of attention, planning, association, and information monitoring.

Finally, the prefrontal cortex activates to integrate all the information, while the anterior cingulate remains attentive and focused on what you read more literally.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

-George R.R. Martin-

A woman reading.

Your brain when you read

The stimulation that goes on in your brain when you read is very high. This is because it activates many regions at about the same time, which is a long-term benefit that improves quantity and quality connections.

In addition, neuroscience proved that reading makes you experience more situations (at least cerebrally) and trains the processing of your emotions, making you emotionally smarter as well.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Kweldju, S. (2015). Neurobiology of research findings: how the brain works during reading. PASAA, 50, 125-142.

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