Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest

January 26, 2009 By Gerry Everding
Click the brain scans to view a color-coded chart describing changes in brain activation during the reading of a brief narrative.

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new brain-imaging study is shedding light on what it means to "get lost" in a good book — suggesting that readers create vivid mental simulations of the sounds, sights, tastes and movements described in a textual narrative while simultaneously activating 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 Jeffrey M. Zacks, study co-author and director of the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science, is one of a series in which Zacks and colleagues use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track real-time brain activity as study participants read and process individual words and short stories.

Nicole Speer, lead author of this study, says findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These 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," says Speer, now a research associate with The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Mental Health Program in Boulder, Colo. "Readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change."

In addition to Zacks, an associate professor of psychology in Arts and Sciences and of radiology in the School of Medicine at WUSTL, other co-authors for this study are Jeremy R. Reynolds, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver in Denver, Colo.; and Khena M. Swallow, a post-doctoral associate in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Reynolds, Swallow and Speer all graduated from the psychology doctoral program at WUSTL in the last several years.

Reading, one of the most important skills human beings can acquire, has been difficult to study using fMRI because researchers seldom have access to expensive scanning equipment for long periods of time. Reading long passages of text also poses challenges because participants must remain very still for the scans to be effective. In an effort to minimize eye movements, participants are immobilized within the brain-scanning device and presented with text one-word-at-a-time on an adjacent computer screen.

Previous research has shown that when people read isolated words or phrases involving vivid visual or motor contents, brain activity in sensory and motor brain regions specifically related to those contents increased. But this result might not be typical of normal reading — in the previous studies there was no story to try to understand, and participants sometimes had to make an explicit judgment about each word or phrase. In this study, Speer and colleagues used fMRI to look for evidence of mental simulation during the reading of extended stories. 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. Participants were shown text passages on a computer screen that displayed one word at a time; 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. The features had been chosen based on previous studies of narrative reading, and were known to be important for comprehension. The researchers hypothesized 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. This is what was found.

For example, 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.

Overall, the data supported the view that readers construct mental simulations of events when reading stories.

The Speer et al. paper extends results reported by this group previously in Psychological Science. In the previous study, the researchers asked readers to divide the stories into meaningful events after reading them in the MRI scanner. The researchers then asked which parts of the brain increased in activity at event boundaries. The mental simulation results reported here line up strikingly with those regions. This suggests that readers construct a mental simulation as they read, and then divide that simulation into meaningful events when important features change.

Provided by Washington University in St. Louis

Explore further: Algorithm decrypts brain-on-chip signals

Related Stories

Algorithm decrypts brain-on-chip signals

July 10, 2017
IISRI researchers are helping to measure the brain's response to stimuli, with huge potential for breakthrough research – in areas ranging from mental health to artificial intelligence.

Satnavs 'switch off' parts of the brain

March 21, 2017
Using a satnav to get to your destination 'switches off' parts of the brain that would otherwise be used to simulate different routes, reveals new UCL research.

High earners in a stock market game have brain patterns that can predict market bubbles

July 7, 2014
If you're so smart, why aren't you rich? It may be that, when it comes to stock market success, your brain is heeding the wrong neural signals.

New insight into how brain performs 'mental time travel'

February 17, 2015
In Proust's novel Recollection of Things Past, the distinctive smell of a lemon madeleine launches the narrator on a long, involved reminiscence of his past that fills seven chapters.

Looking into the brains of habitual short sleepers

September 16, 2016
Most people could benefit from a few extra hours of sleep every night. But some people habitually sleep much less than the recommended amount, yet report feeling no ill effects. A new University of Utah study, published Sept. ...

Exercise reorganizes the brain to be more resilient to stress

July 3, 2013
Physical activity reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function, according to a research team based at Princeton University.

Recommended for you

To pick a great gift, it's better to give AND receive

July 28, 2017
If it's the thought that makes a gift count, here's a thought that can make your gift count extra: Get a little something for yourself.

Researchers crack the smile, describing three types by muscle movement

July 27, 2017
The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions, cover others and manage social interactions that have kept communities secure and organized for millennia.

Even babies can tell who's the boss, UW research says

July 27, 2017
The charismatic colleague, the natural leader, the life of the party - all are personal qualities that adults recognize instinctively. These socially dominant types, according to repeated studies, also tend to accomplish ...

Ketamine for depression encouraging, but questions remain around long-term use

July 27, 2017
A world-first systematic review into the safety of ketamine as a treatment for depression, published in the prestigious Lancet Psychiatry, shows the risks of long-term ketamine treatment remain unclear.

DREAMers at greater risk for mental health distress

July 27, 2017
Immigrants who came to the United States illegally as small children and who meet the requirements of the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as DREAMers, are at risk for mental health ...

Negativity, be gone—new online tool can retrain your brain

July 27, 2017
Anxiety and depression can have devastating effects on people's lives. In some cases, the mental disorders lead to isolation, poverty and poor physical health, things that often cascade to future generations.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gmurphy
5 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2009
this is why the book of a story is usually so much better than the movie.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.