Reading Creates 'Simulations' In Minds

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A study provides new insights about what's going on in your head when you crack open a good book. Jeff Zacks, associate professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, talks about the study.


Think back to the first time you read "The Great Gatsby." Think about this scene in Gatsby's mansion.

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LYDEN: (Reading) He took out of a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us. Shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. Suddenly, with the strange sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

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LYDEN: When we're sitting, reading for a book like this, our bodies may be still, but our brains are working hard to paint a mental picture. Fluttering shirts, Daisy's crying, Gatsby's exaltations. So, how does that work? It's "Science out of the Box."

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LYDEN: Jeff Zacks is an associate professor of psychology. He's one of the co-authors of a new study about what happens to our brains when we read. And he joins us now from Washington University in St. Louis. Welcome, Jeff Zacks.

Prof. JEFF ZACKS (Professor of Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis): Thanks for having me, Jacki.

LYDEN: Set the scene for us here, you and the lead author, Nicole Speer had people read inside an MRI machine, which I will do for you anytime you like. How did that work?

Prof. ZACKS: So, they're lying in the dark, looking at a computer screen and words are appearing one at a time at a rate that's comfortable such that they can read and understand what's happening. The stories are about a little boy name Raymond living in a town in the Midwest in the '40s.

LYDEN: You took pictures of these people's brains while they were reading. What did you see?

Prof. ZACKS: So, if you pick up a can of soda, your brain goes through a whole cascade of processes having to do with the motor commands to your arms. What it looks like to grab the soda can, what it feels like in your hand and arms. If you run in to another person in the hall and start interacting with them, your brain goes through a whole different cascade of processes. And what we found is that as people are lying in the scanner reading about picking up a can of soda or bumping into a friend, their brain processes differ in ways that are similar to the differences that we see in responses to real experiences.

LYDEN: Well, does that mean they're actually exercising their brains to do those functions?

Dr. ZACKS: Well what it suggests to us is that when they're reading the story, they're building simulations in their head of events that are described by the story. And so, there's an important sense that as they build that simulation that it's significantly like being there.

LYDEN: Now, what does this tell us about the brain, Jeff Zacks, that we didn't know before?

Prof. ZACKS: We're used to thinking that virtual reality is something that involves fancy computers and helmets and gadgets. But what these kind of data suggest is that language itself is a powerful form of virtual reality, that there's an important sense in which when we tell each other stories that we can control the perceptional processes that are happening in each other's brains.

LYDEN: Jeff Zacks is an associate professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. Thank you for joining us today.

Prof. ZACKS: Thank you.

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