Human brain does not see any differences between stories and real-life situations when it comes to processing them, according to a study.
The brain-imaging study suggests that readers create vivid mental simulations of the sounds, sights, tastes and movements described in a textual narrative, and simultaneously activate brain regions used to process similar experiences in real life.
"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," says study co-author Jeffrey M. Zacks, of Washington University in St. Louis.
Reported in the journal Psychological Science, the study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track real-time brain activity as the participants read and processed individual words and short stories.
Nicole Speer, lead author of this study, says that the findings show that reading is by no means a passive exercise, and that readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative.
The researcher adds that details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences, and that data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.
"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. Readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change," says Speer, currently a research associate with The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Mental Health Program in Boulder.
During the study, each participant read four stories of less than 1500 words excerpted from a simple, 1940s-era book about the daily activities of a young boy.
The subjects were shown text passages on a computer screen that displayed one word at a time, and reading all four stories took most participants about 40 minutes.
The researchers had carefully coded the stories so that they knew when important features of the story were changing, and the features had been chosen based on previous studies of narrative reading, and were known to be important for comprehension.
As the researchers had hypothesized, the researchers found that some brain regions would increase at several different feature changes, but that other brain regions would be selectively activated by only one feature change.
Overall, according to the researchers, their study suggested that readers construct mental simulations of events when reading stories.