Monday 23 February 2009

Reading as Mental Simulation

What are we doing when we read fiction? In a recent report in Science Daily (Washington University in St Louis, 2009), Jeffrey Zacks is quoted as saying: "Psychologists and neuroscientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story."

The Science Daily report is of an article by Nicole Speer, Jeremy Reynolds, Khena Swallow & Jeffrey Zacks, that is due to appear in Psychological Science. Until now, because subjects need to keep very still in an fMRI machine, most neuro-imaging studies of reading have used isolated phrases and sentences. Speer and her colleagues have devised a method of presenting words one at a time in rapid succession on a screen so that people can remain still while reading a 1500-word short story. In a previous study, Speer, Zacks, and Reynolds (2007) found that readers divide stories up into events, and that different brain regions are activated when, in a narrative, a new event occurs. In the study that is in press, this group has found that when they were reading about actions performed by a story character, activation occurred in the region of the reader's brain that is associated with doing that kind of action in real life. For instance, says the Science Daily report, "changes in the objects a character interacted with (e.g., "pulled a light cord") were associated with increases in a region in the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Changes in characters' locations (e.g., "went through the front door into the kitchen") were associated with increases in regions in the temporal lobes that are selectively activate when people view pictures of spatial scenes."

This study not only offers new evidence of brain activity during reading beyond Victor Nell's (1988) Lost in a book (see Books on the Psychology of Fiction, by clicking here), but it seems to confirm in a striking way the idea of reading as simulation (see e.g. Mar & Oatley, 2008, which you can access by clicking here). The implication is that stories become vivid as they activate the same brain regions as would be activated if the reader were doing the things that a character does in a story.

Raymond Mar & Keith Oatley (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 173-192.

Victor Nell (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press.

Nicole Speer, Jeffrey Zacks, & Jeremy Reynolds (2007). Human brain activity time-locked to narrative event boundaries. Psychological Science, 18, 449-455.

Washington University in St. Louis (2009, February 5). Readers Build Vivid Mental Simulations Of Narrative Situations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from­ /releases/2009/01/090128214820.htm


Anonymous said...

Does this relate to the idea of mirror neurons? Where we see something and can 'feel' or imagine how it might feel. Can we not read about something and do the same?

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Allan, for this comment. Yes, I think this finding does link to mirror neurons, perhaps in the way you suggest, though the authors of the paper I review here, Speer et al., mention the research on mirror neurons only in passing.

Anatole Pierre Fuksas said...

my shot at it (including ecological theory of perception, mirror neurons and Damasio's somatic marker)

It might be very interesting to start a collaboration on such topics.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much for this, Anatole Pierre. I will follow it up.

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