Does reading affect our social behaviour?

Research suggests that empathy development might need to hit the books. So, do we know where social behaviour and the act of reading overlap?

How does reading a narrative affect our minds? This is a question being increasingly asked by cognitive scientists, publishers, readers, and even journalists and advertisers. There have been some striking claims in newspapers in the last few years, often based on studies involving brain scans, which suggest that the development of our brains is intimately changed by reading a story. In January this year, Gail Rebuck, the CEO of Random House UK, wrote regarding such studies that “deep reading makes us more empathetic” (“Technology is not the enemy in the battle of the book”, 3 January 2012), and that, simultaneously, Western society has shown falling rates of empathy. The suggested argument is immediately apparent: if we read less, we’ll care less. So, does reading literally change our brains and improve our ability to empathise with others?

Well, here’s the idea. Reading is a different mental activity to watching television, talking to someone, or even directly experiencing something in real life. Reading requires the brain to work: it has to simulate everything. The brain is forced to construct, imagine and maintain, because the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and physical sensations aren’t already there for us to absorb automatically. Although the nature of reading, and the book itself, is technologically-limited (at least for now) in what it can spoon-feed to our senses, these very limitations encourage our brains to fill in the blanks. And both current scientific research and anecdotal evidence are suggesting that this could be a very good thing for our minds and emotional development.

One of the latest studies used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology to track brain activity (“Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest”, Washington University in St. Louis, 11 February 2009), and numerous theories regarding reader immersion have long argued that reading can dramatically alter our state of awareness. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been ‘lost’ in a book; Sven Birkets describes the reading mode as a “meditative immersion that is, for me, one of the main incentives for reading” (1994), and Eli James recognises it as the stage where you “forget about the sun and the ocean and so get sunburnt with a shadow-image of a book burnt into your chest” (2009).

The theories have gotten more empirical over the years, with the term ‘transportation’ being coined by Richard Gerrig to refer to the total immersion in a narrative, where your sense of surroundings is literally replaced by a sense of the text, so that you are unaware of time passing and of nearby real-life events. And this sort of immersion only happens because of what your brain is being forced to do. If you stop the brain from doing that reading-work, you’re back in reality. Kier Graff revealed a crucial part of this puzzle in 2008 after viewing the digitally interactive short story by Charles Cumming called The 21 Steps, which allows the reader to follow the story via multimedia elements, such as a satellite view that follows a character’s location when the chapters are clicked on. Graff wrote: “It’s an odd sensation, really: simple words can evoke a world in our imaginations, but as soon as the words are married to real-world images, they lose much of their power.” Put bluntly, multimedia has the capacity to detract from text as well as add to it.

Of course, this latest theory about developing empathy through reading isn’t without its problems also, and the idea should be treated with all appropriate scepticism. Many writers aren’t doing this quite so much as eagerly jumping on the I-told-you-so bandwagon of supporting the existence of books. Admittedly, that’s a noble bandwagon to jump on—and writers would be alarmingly lacking in self-preservation if they didn’t defend and promote reading.

However, not everyone experiences books the same way. Psychologist Victor Nell collected reader testimonies suggesting that the degree of resolution of mental representations varies greatly; with notable differing factors including reader temperament and level of interest. Marie-Laure Ryan points out (“Narratology and Cognitive Science” [PDF, 414kb], 2010) that “some people will build a vivid image of the face of Emma Bovary, while others will only imagine a ghostly body moving through a landscape.” Most experts in reader immersion would probably dismiss the latter as simply being examples of uninterested or unabsorbed readers. But who are we to say?

Reading the brain: What we do know
When it comes to reader immersion, studies and researchers such as Nell (1988), Polichak & Gerrig (2002) and Green (2008) have discussed how individuals tend to identify with protagonists, share their emotions and motivations, and frequently wish for them to have favourable outcomes. Maybe this explains why people write fan-fiction when they aren’t happy with how a story turned out. Or why they can fall in love with people via the text medium alone (fictional or non-fictional).

Similarly to these research findings, brain-scanning technology and neurological studies have suggested that reading about an event stimulates the same regions of the brain as direct experience of that event (as reported by Everding in the 2009 study conducted by Speer, Reynolds, Swallow and Zacks). We also know that empathy can develop from seeing another living thing—human or not—experiencing emotions; i.e. that we tend to instinctively recognise pain, fear, anger, contentment and so on, and that we are usually able to simulate or grasp the feeling of experiencing it ourselves. Empathy can be derived from many sources—the act of reading seems capable of being one of them.

Reading the brain: What we don’t know
There are, however, some significant limitations with the studies conducted so far. As reported by Gerry Everding in February 2009, “participants of brain scans must remain very still for the scans to be effective,” with that particular study presenting words one at a time to readers. I don’t know about you, but for me, seeing a narrative one word a time would really kill a book’s pacing. This alone could mean that we have never scanned the brain of a truly immersed, ‘lost-in-a-book’ reader.

Also, we rely heavily on mental association for things such as smell and taste. Have you ever read about a fruit that you have never eaten? If so, how effectively could you imagine its taste? And how frequently are smells and tastes simply likened to something else to cut corners? Effective descriptors for these senses are few. What this calls into question is whether our brains are even doing a good job of constructing ‘vivid’ mental simulations of experiences. Perhaps they are constructing completely inaccurate simulations. And what if we only read books about sociopaths, or books with terrible narratives and characters? Does that build effective empathy? Hey, maybe. We don’t know.

What does this mean for narratives?
Ever notice how ad campaigns designed to, say, increase health awareness are often using storylines and narrative models? Showing the kids worrying about their dad’s cholesterol levels, and so on? It generates more sympathy and worry than simply throwing around dry, bland facts and figures about a health risk, doesn’t it? Obviously, this won’t apply just to health campaigns alone, but to anything designed to appeal to the emotions.

Music videos. Clothing. Food and drink. Now, it’s one thing for Coco the Monkey to try to get me to buy Coco Pops (and as far as characters go, he’s a weird, historically amorphous and vaguely off-putting irritation… uh, sorry, I digress), but an actual narrative is another thing entirely. If narratives are found to be more effective than characters by themselves, we can expect to see the narrative form used more often for… well, for everything. More people will want to know the formula for creating a tear-jerking narrative in the smallest amount of time so that we’ll buy X to feel better, as opposed to finding the optimal catchphrase, or the optimal sexualised image, and so on (although I’m sure combining them all will be tried plenty, too).

But what does all this mean for books?
So far, we cannot conclude that reading builds empathy or that we will become a “less intricate, less empathetic, less interesting” people if we stop reading, as Gail Rebuck suggests (3 January 2012). Not yet, anyway. Intricacy and empathy can come from other sources. And how narratives are able to change us, and our brains, is still uncertain. Furthermore, we don’t know much about whether narratives being in book form—as opposed to other mediums—is crucial to our empathy development or brain rewiring (though the research is beginning to look stronger). It may be that our empathy levels are falling for other reasons, if they are falling at all.

Although we cannot yet conclude that reading is a fast-track to empathy, or to character-building experiences in general (pun not intended), we can conclude that reading causes our minds to work differently compared to experiencing other mediums. That is, it creates a different sort of immersion, a different brain response. By all appearances, reading teaches our brains to construct. But constructions can be empathetic or otherwise; creations can be imaginative or dull; simulations can be accurate or misleading.

Technology might not be the enemy of narrative, no; but it can definitely threaten immersion. If text is changed by technology so that it includes videos, sound clips, interactive maps and social network integration, then technology is going to change how much work our brains have to do. Technology—or more accurately, multimedia technology—needs to be applied judiciously to avoid threatening immersion. So in this regard, I’m inclined to agree with Ms Rebuck: if we stop reading, we will miss out on the development of very unique brain functions, and whatever substitutes we find for developing those functions will probably be poorer in quality. But it’s too early to say whether the sorts of brain activity scanned by the latest MRIs are the building blocks of empathy, reflection or vivid imaginations. They could be. Or they could be the building blocks of something else entirely. Either way, the book-defending bandwagon still looks like an important ride.

Birkets, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies (Fawcett, Columbine 1994) p162, cited in Sherman Young, The Book is Dead (Long Live the Book), University of New South Wales Press Ltd 2007

Everding, Gerry. “Readers build mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest”, Newsroom, Washington University in St. Louis (11 February 2009)

James, Eli. “A Format for Online FictionNovelr, (3 November 2009)

Graff, Keir. “Clickable fiction doesn’t click with me”, Likely Stories, 3 April 2008

Rebuck, Gail. “Technology is not the enemy in the battle for the book” (3 Jan 2012)

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Narratology and Cognitive Science: A Problematic Relation” [PDF, 414kb], 2010


[This article was first printed in Plane Tree magazine, vol.18, no.1, March 2012]

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