You’re sitting on a beach, the sun beating hot against your back. Your dig your toes into the grainy sand to feel the cool earth beneath the surface. The smell of sunscreen and coconut oil hits your nose, and you listen to the sound of seagulls calling and waves crashing against the shore. An attractive stranger rises from the surf, water flowing down their body, bringing all sorts of possibilities to your mind’s eye. Just as you were losing yourself in your surroundings, “Single Ladies” blares out of your cellphone, jarring you from your romantic reverie. You shut your book with an unwilling sigh and reenter the real world.
When we read a novel, we are transported to another world. Many people think of fiction as an escape from reality, and now there is evidence that phrase isn’t just a metaphor. Researchers have found that when we read a physical description, our brain reacts as if the description on the page is really happening to us. For instance, in the paragraph above, the words “coconut oil” elicit a response not just from the section of the brain that deals with language, but also the olfactory cortex, the area of the brain that processes smell. Words like “grainy” activate the sensory cortex, which responds to texture. Words involving motion not only activate the motor cortex, but even target the section of it that deals with individual body parts; when you read about digging your toes into the sand, it produces activity in the section of the motor cortex specifically responsible for leg movement.
With the knowledge that our minds blend the difference between fiction and reality, it comes as little surprise to learn that reading novels can impact our social identities. Researchers at University of Buffalo conducted a study where the participants were asked to read a passage from either Twilight or Harry Potter. The researchers then administered a test where participants responded to “me” words (mine, my) and “not me” words (they, theirs), which were linked with “vampire” or “wizard” words on screen. The participants who read the passage from Twilight were more quick to respond to the “me” words when they were associated with “vampire” words, and vice versa. Furthermore, after testing participants’ level of self-identification with those fictional groups, the researchers found that identification with the fictional community provided the same “mood and life satisfaction” as belonging to a real-world group.
I wonder what this research says about the benefits of reading horror stories. Any ideas?