The Brain Chemistry of Reading
February 17, 2009 9:47 PM   Subscribe

What is the brain chemistry involved in reading a good book? What areas of the brain are stimulated? What chemicals experience an uptick? Is there a particular combination unique to reading for pleasure?

I'm a nonscientific layperson (I write book reviews, of fiction mostly.)
Lately, I've been wondering about the brain chemistry and brain activity involved in curling up with a good novel.

What is the neurochemical, and physiological response, and has it been measured, studied? Or compared to some other common act- "Reading a book is like meditation, in terms of the brain areas it stimulates," for example.
I'm not talking about reading to study or learn, but reading for pure pleasure.
I'd love to learn more- especially an explanation that's more conversational and anecdotal, rather than lifted right from the pages of an academic journal.
posted by SaharaRose to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
For me, it feels like eating. The satisfaction of the first spoonful of a steaming casserole that has been on the stove a few hours. I feel it in the same spot in my head - a lightness - and in my abdomen - a sigh. But maybe that's just because I love eating and I love reading.
posted by NekulturnY at 12:59 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Incidentally (found through the above link):

Like in other rewards, both learning and cognitive areas play a significant part in food reward.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:12 AM on February 18, 2009

I won't link out any journals but I will try to answer as best as I can from a semi-scientific standpoint. Most studies that investigate this type of thing use fMRI to look at blood oxygenation level (a correlate of brain activity) while people are performing a particular task, and there are limited methods to investigate directly which chemicals are being released in someone's brain at a given time. I could guess that being curled up with a good book would involve release of pleasant neurotransmitters such as dopamine (feels good) and serotonin (mood/sleep/wake) but the chemicals involved in brain activity at such a meta level are probably a complex and mysterious mess at this point.

The brain areas involved are less of a mess and have received considerably more research. First, we know that most parts of the brain involved in language processing are on the left side, notably Broca's and Wernicke's areas. Keep in mind there are still many active areas not specific to the reading task, such as the occipital (vision) motor/pre-motor (moving pages) and various attention centers (overt/covert). Specifically to reading itself, evidence suggests that the inferior frontal gyrus brain and the parieto-temporal area might be involved in helping a reader analyze a word, while the occipito-temporal brain area helps a reader quickly recognize known words (see this SFN article). You will see this type of functional distinction frequently, as each part of the brain is responsible for a small part of the task.

More broadly, there are few ways to get at this type of thing, the first being the very specific and controlled tasks in a scanning environment, and the other being the more anecdotal evidence of subject populations and cognitive impairment such as brain lesions or disabilities (see Oliver Sacks). Because it sounds like you are more interested in the second, I can suggest you look further into studies of people with dyslexia and the the various aphasia's. By looking at how reading and language comprehension breaks down, you can often gain a unique outlook on the underlying processes and how they might fit together.

It would be my guess that the pleasure one derives from reading is a learned response. While speech comes naturally to us humans, reading is still a relatively recent development in evolutionary terms and one we must struggle to succeed in, as any young child will attest. With enough practice, one gets good at reading and begins to see rewards from the knowledge they have learned. The imagination and reality simulation that is involved in reading a book is certainly more complex, and might involve completely different frontal brain areas developed for those "what if" future prediction calculations. I'm sorry I can't provide more definite answers to these questions but I hope I have at least provided some direction on where you might wish to begin.
posted by sophist at 1:16 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Re. "reading for pure pleasure", every time I go to Borders and come across a book that's *really* what I'm in the mood to read, I always feel a little giddy. Almost a high, "butterflies in the stomach"-type feeling. Here's more about why:

"The neurons that produce dopamine in response to pleasure often seem to activate just before the pleasurable activity occurs, which suggests that the relationship between pleasure and dopamine may be complex. The data on the timing of dopamine release are somewhat contradictory, but the theory emerging is that the dopamine reward signal acts as a kind of teaching tool. In this model, our brains release a certain amount of dopamine as a predictor of how pleasurable some activity is going to be. The dopamine motivates us, increasing our energy and drive and compelling us to engage in the pleasurable activity. If everything is as nice as the brain predicted, dopamine levels remain elevated. If things turn out even better than the brain hoped, dopamine levels are increased; we engage in the pleasurable activity even more vigorously. If, on the other hand, the activity is less pleasurable than we thought it would be, dopamine levels plummet."

This would also explain NekulturnY's "first bite" phenomenon.
posted by aquafortis at 1:20 AM on February 18, 2009

Response by poster: aquafortis- what're you quoting? I'd love the citation.
posted by SaharaRose at 6:22 AM on February 18, 2009

I often get chills and can't sleep right after I finish a book... so yeah, for me it'd have to be some kind of adrenaline/dopamine combination. Reading is one of the most intense pleasures imaginable for some of us, I'm sure (well, top 5 anyway).
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 6:24 AM on February 18, 2009

This BBC 4 documentary on the subject was broadcast just this week, and was fascinating. It doesn't seem to be available on iplayer for some reason. Anyway, the blurb makes it sound much lighter than it was. They did this really cool thing where people would be exposed to novel use of grammar while hooked up to an EEG. The novel bit of grammar they used was from Shakespeare - someone was so esteemed, they "Godded" him. When the subjects read these words, a particular response would fire at a particular time interval. That time interval is static across subjects i.e. everyone's brain does the exact same thing with novel grammar. The researchers claim they can say with certainty that this particular response means that the brain has been shocked by the grammar but understands the meaning. A different response fires when the meaning is not understood. A quick googling found this article on the study.

They also had interesting things to say about empathic responses to fiction; when you watch people dancing, the motion parts of your brain are engaged. Similarly, they suggest, recent studies have shown that when you read about people dancing, those same parts of your brain are engaged. On a neurological level, you experience some of what the protagonists are experiencing.
posted by tiny crocodile at 7:52 AM on February 18, 2009

Sophist gives a great answer about what goes on in your head when you read. However, I noticed you said specifically:

I've been wondering about the brain chemistry and brain activity involved in curling up with a good novel.

For me, part of the great pleasure of reading novels is the affection I come to feel towards the characters in the book. Social kinship and emotional closeness are very strong, very rewarding psychological experiences which can be simulated by reading - Harry Potter is not just words on a page, he's your friend, and he's sharing his deepest fears with you. Social interaction has been shown to stimulate release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain's reward system (primarily in the nucleus accumbens - this is the same place where drugs, sex, and chocolate have their effect) and so it's no surprise that we find bonding with the characters we read about so pleasurable.

Of course, there is also the vicarious emotional experience one gets from reading a book and identifying strongly with a character. Their successes become your successes - their joy, your joy. Research suggests that when you empathize with someone, your brain processes what happens to them as though it happened to you. For instance, if something painful happened to you, areas in my brain associated with pain processing (for instance, the anterior cingulate cortex) would become active. You may have heard of mirror neurons. They may play a very important role in allowing us to experience the feelings of others as our own.
posted by shaun uh at 8:37 AM on February 18, 2009

Sorry! Here's the link:

The Pleasure Principle p. 3: Focus on Dopamine
posted by aquafortis at 1:34 PM on February 18, 2009

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