Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Brain imaging research shows that readers create ‘movies’ in their minds

New brain imaging research shows that when people read, they create vivid simulations in their minds to relate to what the characters in the book are doing.

Jeremy Reynolds, assistant professor of psychology at DU, co-authored the study which will be published in the journal Psychological Science. He and three other researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track real-time brain activity as participants read and processed short stories.

“The results give us insight into how we understand stories,” Reynolds says. “When we think about virtual reality, we tend to think that it requires expensive, high-tech machinery, when text may provide us with all of the stimulation that we need.”

Nicole Speer, lead author of the study, says findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise.

“These results suggest that readers use perceptual and motor representations in the process of comprehending narrated activity, and these representations are dynamically updated at points where relevant aspects of the situation are changing,” says Speer, a research associate with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Mental Health Program in Boulder.

The researchers used fMRI to look for evidence of mental simulation when participants read stories about the activities of a young boy. They had carefully coded the stories so that they knew when important features of the story were changing.

For example, when participants read that a character was moving “through the front door into the kitchen,” their brain regions activate as if they are walking through a door in the real world.

Reynolds hopes to build on this research by collaborating with DU psychology Professor Janice Keenan, who studies reading disabilities.

“It’s possible children with reading disabilities are not using the same types of simulation processes to understand stories,” Reynolds says. “Observing their responses to such narratives might help us to better understand these disorders.”

In addition to Reynolds and Speer, the other co-authors of the study are Jeffrey Zacks, associate professor of psychology and radiology at Washington University in St. Louis, and Khena Swallow, a post-doctoral associate in psychology at the University of Minnesota.

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