Summary of “What Does Immersing Yourself in a Book Do To Your Brain?”

Drama makes more visible what each of us does when we pass over in our deepest, most immersive forms of reading.
These are the learned capacities that help us become more human over time, whether as a child when reading Frog and Toad and learning what Toad does when Frog is sick or as an adult when reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, or James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro, and experiencing the soul-stealing depravity of slavery and the desperation of those condemned to it or to its legacy.
What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin? It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.
“What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin?”.
In what is surely one of the more intriguingly titled articles in this research, “Your Brain on Jane Austen,” the scholar of 18th-century literature Natalie Phillips teamed with Stanford neuroscientists to study what happens when we read fiction in different ways: that is, with and without “Close attention.” Phillips and her colleagues found that when we read a piece of fiction “Closely,” we activate regions of the brain that are aligned to what the characters are both feeling and doing.
In related work, neuroscientists from Emory University and from York University have shown how networks in the areas responsible for touch, called the somatosensory cortex, are activated when we read metaphors about texture, and also how motor neurons are activated when we read about movement.
Oatley and his York University colleague Raymond Mar suggest that the process of taking on another’s consciousness in reading fiction and the nature of fiction’s content-where the great emotions and conflicts of life are regularly played out-not only contribute to our empathy, but represent what the social scientist Frank Hakemulder called our “Moral laboratory.” In this sense, when we read fiction, the brain actively simulates the consciousness of another person, including those whom we would never otherwise even imagine knowing.
This emerging work on empathy in the reading brain illustrates physiologically, cognitively, politically, and culturally how important it is that feeling and thought be connected in the reading circuit in every person.

The orginal article.