Your brain on fiction: we simulate action we read in narrative

A forthcoming journal article in Psychological Science reports on the research of scientists from the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis into what brain activity takes place while we read narrative stories. The study concludes that our brains simulate the action in the story, echoing it as we read.

I've always assumed that this was the case -- especially when it comes to character motivations. When I hear the voice of a loved one in my head, cheering me on or disapproving, I know that this is my mental simulation of that person. When a character does something in a story and I feel for him, it's the same kind of simulation. And when I try to write a character doing something "wrong," I know that this, too, is part of the simulation, and the resistance I feel there is the same as the resistance I'd feel if I tried to imagine my mother committing an ax-murder.

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."

Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest (via Futurismic)


  1. I don’t feel any resistance at all when I try to imagine my mother committing an axe murder. Should I worry about her, or myself?

  2. This is fascinating. This belief has been around for a while- the Victorians placed a special emphasis on the mind/body connection and novels got a significant amount of criticism about it. Specifically the “sensation novels” that had outrageous plots about bigamy, murder, deception were believed to make your women hysterical, your servants unruly, etc.

    Personally, I’ve always believed in it to a certain extent- I have panic attacks, and reading about (or watching) certain situations can make be begin to feel anxious. It’s fairly difficult for me to enjoy horror movies because of it.

  3. This has been a common theme in my dreams for years — I’ll be reading a story, looking at the pages, and then it starts to happen around me. I guess since my brain is running an audiovisual simulation anyway in order to dream, it simulates the story within the simulation of reading.

  4. This is great, but I would like to see a similar study on brain activity when being told a story. Not read-to, mind you, but having a story told to you, sans book.

  5. Is this why I sometimes cannot remember whether I read it or saw it on television? I know my brain naturally goes more visual than audio. I tend to see a narrative as I read. So it would make sense that in memory I recall visual images from these mental simulations the same way I recall movies.

    This could explain why reading is so immersing.

  6. I’m not a very visual person at all. In fact, whereas people say they see images in their mind, I’ve never had that.

    Instead I ‘see’ text. Except- I don’t ‘see’ text. I just process in language. I have no mind’s eye.

    I wonder what this would mean for me on this brainscan.

  7. This explains why I always get hungry for whatever food the characters are eating. It’s like a demented drinking game – whenever a character eats or drinks something, my brain says, “Eat!” In a book with a lot of meal or food descriptions, I have to be very careful or I find myself eating pretty much constantly.

    That’s why I now have an entire cookie canister filled with shortbread that’s too sweet for my normal tastes. Too many Miss Marples in a row = intense craving for tea cookies. Now, not so much.

    Now I’m wondering if reading about survival situations (apocolyptic lit, survivalist stuff, zombie Armageddon, etc) actually makes you more likely to survive, since you’ve actually simulated the required responses in your brain. I’m thinking of those studies that came out not too long ago that showed that visualizing playing a sport actually makes you better at playing it.

  8. I wonder how autistic spectrum people react to fiction? Might just have something to do with the fact-based interests, no? Just thinking out loud here.

  9. This reminds me of “I Am a Strange Loop“, the part about how the coarse-grained simulation you have in your head of the “point of view” of someone you know well isn’t actually that different from what goes on in the brain of that person… how you can actually emulate someone else’s sense of “I”.

  10. I’m not too surprised. I remember a study maybe 20 years back in which the subject was led through a house via narration. When they were asked questions about the rooms they had visitied, the response time depended on how far they were in narration from the room in question. To figure out whether there was a newspaper on the entry table, the subject had to go back, room by room, to the entry and check the table, at least in their imagination.

    You’d expect that there would be a similar mechanism in more general narration.

  11. I wonder if this could (obliquely) serve as an argument against attributing violent acting-out to video games? I think video games can be seen as a “cold” medium, a la mcluhan, and perhaps leave too little to the imagination to act things out, mentally or otherwise…?

  12. I’d like to see a comparative study with television. Would the same simulation occur? Different parts of the brain accessed as we watch vs. viewing?

  13. (while listening to

    This article has stirred up an old pot of ideas I’ve been wrestling with for some while. Thanks!

    We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. – Marshall McLuhan

    Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious–the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Phillipians 4:8 (MSG)

    Who is the most dangerous thief?
    Who can capture the heavens and the earth?

    The Blessed One replied,
    The most dangerous thief is unwholesome thought;
    the heavens and the earth may be captured by the mind’s eye;

    Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place! 1 For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword.”

    Matthew 6:22-23 (NET) The eye is the lamp of the body. If then your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

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