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Is reading about an event as good as being there?

A few days ago I read a fascinating article about how reading affects the brain. Recent neurological research suggests that:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.

At first I dismissed this as nonsense. I have read lots of books about the Holocaust, but I can’t imagine this comes close to the true horror of being there. I know that many people avoid books with a darker subject matter and I wonder if this is because the effect is stronger in them. I think I’d avoid dark books if my brain ended up thinking I’d been caught up in such horrific events. Surely I’d have a massive case of post-traumatic stress disorder if this research was true?


The research also claims that reading helps people to understand the thoughts of others and can change the way we act. This I can believe.

Reading about the same event from multiple perspectives has definitely increased my tolerance for different behaviours. I am far more likely to have empathy with those on both sides of any given argument than my non-reading friends.

Photo credit: Sam Mugraby,


I have always favoured books containing vivid descriptions. The research suggests that is because they affect multiple areas of the brain.

Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

This makes a lot of sense, but also makes me wonder why some people enjoy simpler books that don’t contain these trigger words. I like to be transported into the lives of other people and this is far harder if I can’t picture their surroundings.

Is it worth skim reading a section of any book your thinking of reading to check for words that affect multiple areas of the brain?


The interesting thing happens when I try to remember books that I’ve read and compare them to real life experiences. With recent events the difference is massive, but if I think back five or ten years I realise the research might be true. Over time the details from both books and real life fade to leave very similar impressions. I can imagine exactly what life is like in India, despite never having been there, and I think I know what it would be like to live in Victorian London. Sometimes I’m sure I confuse some of the more realistic scenes from books with those from my own life.

So the big questions are:

Do you think reading about an event as good as being there?

Does the author have to be especially talented to manage this or will most writing achieve it?


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