Is reading about an event as good as being there?

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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?

Empathy

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, Photos8.com

Vivid

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?

Remembering

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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