What Does Immersing Yourself in a Book Do To Your Brain?

Only connect.

–E.M. Forster

The act of taking on the perspective and feelings of others is one of the most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions of the deep-reading processes. Proust’s description of “that fertile miracle of communication effected in solitude” depicts an intimate emotional dimension within the reading experience: the capacity to communicate and to feel with another without moving an inch out of our private worlds. This capacity imparted by reading—to leave and yet not leave one’s sphere—is what gave the reclusive Emily Dickinson what she called her personal “frigate” to other lives and lands outside her perch above Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts.

The narrative theologian John S. Dunne described this process of encounter and perspective taking in reading as the act of “passing over,” in which we enter into the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others through a particular kind of empathy: “Passing over is never total but is always partial and incomplete. And there is an equal and opposite process of coming back to oneself.” It is a beautifully apt description for how we move from our inherently circumscribed views of the world to enter another’s and return enlarged. In Love’s Mind, his numinous book on contemplation, Dunne expanded Proust’s insight: “That ‘fruitful miracle of a communication effected in solitude’ may be already a kind of learning to love.” Dunne saw the paradox that Proust described within reading—in which communication occurs despite the solitary nature of the reading act—as an unexpected preparation for our efforts to come to know other human beings, understand what they feel, and begin to change our sense of who or what is “other.” For theologians such as John Dunne and writers such as Gish Jen, whose lifework illumines this principle in fiction and nonfiction alike, the act of reading is a special place in which human beings are freed from themselves to pass over to others and, in so doing, learn what it means to be another person with aspirations, doubts, and emotions that they might otherwise never have known.

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A powerful example of the transforming effects of “passing over” was told to me by a Berkeley-trained drama teacher who works with adolescents in the heart of the Midwest. A student came to him, a beautiful 13-year-old girl, who said she wanted to be part of his theater group performing William Shakespeare’s plays. It would have been an ordinary request, save for the reality that the young girl had advanced cystic fibrosis and had been told she had only a brief time to live. That amazing teacher gave the young girl a role he hoped would give her the feelings of romantic love and passion that she might never experience in life. She became, he said, the perfect Juliet. Almost overnight, she memorized the lines of Romeo and Juliet as if she had played the role a hundred times before.

It was what happened next that stunned everyone around her. She went on to become one Shakespearean heroine after another, each role performed with more emotional depth and strength than the one before. Years have now passed since she played Juliet. Against all expectations and medical prognoses, she has entered college, where she is pursuing a dual degree in medicine and theater, in which she will continue to “pass over” into one role after another.

That young woman’s exceptional example is not so much about whether the mind and heart can overcome the limitations of the body; rather, it is about the powerful nature of what entering the lives of others can mean for our own lives. Drama makes more visible what each of us does when we pass over in our deepest, most immersive forms of reading. We welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves, and sometimes we become Other. For a moment in time we leave ourselves; and when we return, sometimes expanded and strengthened, we are changed both intellectually and emotionally. And sometimes, as this remarkable young woman’s example shows us, we experience what life has not allowed us. It is an incalculable gift.

And there is a gift within a gift. Perspective-taking not only connects our sense of empathy with what we have just read but also expands our internalized knowledge of the world. 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.

Through this consciousness-changing dimension of the act of reading, we learn to feel what it means to be despairing and hopeless or ecstatic and consumed with unspoken feelings. I no longer remember how many times I have read what each of Jane Austen’s heroines felt—Emma, Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice or in her newest incarnation in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice. What I know is that each of those characters experienced emotions that helped me understand the range of the often contradictory feelings each of us possesses; doing so leaves us feeling less alone with our particular complex mix of emotions, whatever our life’s circumstances. As expressed in the play Shadowlands, about the life of C. S. Lewis, “We read to know that we are not alone.”

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“We welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves, and sometimes we become Other. For a moment in time we leave ourselves; and when we return, sometimes expanded and strengthened, we are changed both intellectually and emotionally.”

Indeed if we are very lucky, we may come to experience a special form of love for those who inhabit our books and even, at times, for the authors who write them. One of the most concrete renderings of this latter concept can be found in the most unlikely of historical persons, Niccolò Machiavelli. In order that he might better enter the consciousness and “converse” with the authors he was reading, he would dress formally in the style of dress appropriate to the authors in their various epochs. In a letter to the diplomat Francesco Vettori in 1513, he wrote:

I am not ashamed to speak with them, and to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; four hours may pass and I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; I give myself entirely to them.

In this passage Machiavelli exemplifies not only the perspective-taking dimension of deep reading, but also the capacity to be transported from whatever our present realities are to an internal place where we can experience a sharing of the inevitable burdens that typify most human existence whatever our age: fear, anxiety, loneliness, sickness, love’s uncertainties, loss and rejection, sometimes death itself. I do not doubt that some of this was what the young Susan Sontag felt when she would look at her bookcase and feel she was “looking at my fifty friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else.” And surely it is what these authors give witness to in the communicative dimension of reading and what it means at every age to leave oneself to enter the welcome solace of the company of others, whether fictional characters, historical figures, or the authors themselves.

That this freely given immersion in the reading life could be threatened in our culture has begun to emerge as a concern for growing numbers in our society, including an NPR team that spent a whole interview with me on their personal concern about this loss. There are many things that would be lost if we slowly lose the cognitive patience to immerse ourselves in the worlds created by books and the lives and feelings of the “friends” who inhabit them. And although it is a wonderful thing that movies and film can do some of this, too, there is a difference in the quality of immersion that is made possible by entering the articulated thoughts of others. 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.

Such thoughts and their correlative hope are frequent themes in the work of the novelist Marilynne Robinson, whom former president Barack Obama described as a “specialist in empathy.” In one of the most remarkable of exchanges requested by him during his presidency, Obama visited Robinson on a trip to Iowa. During their wide-ranging discussion, Robinson lamented what she saw as a political drift among many people in the United States toward seeing those different from themselves as the “sinister other.” She characterized this as “dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.” Whether writing about humanism’s decline or fear’s capacity to diminish the very values its proponents purport to defend, she conceptualizes the power of books to help us understand the perspective of others as an antidote to the fears and prejudices many people harbor, often unknowingly. Within this context, Obama told Robinson that the most important things he had learned about being a citizen had come from novels: “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone else even though they’re very different from you.”

The desperately real lessons about empathy that Obama and Robinson discussed may begin with the experiencing of other lives, but they are deepened by the work that follows perspective-taking—when something we read forces us to examine our own prior judgments and the lives of others. Lucia Berlin’s story “A Manual for Cleaning Women” is a case in point for me. When I began the story, I saw the protagonist cleaning woman as being oblivious to the everyday tragedies that skirted just below the surface in the places where she worked. Until, that is, I read the last sentence, which ended the story with her utterance “I finally weep.” Everything I had first assumed about the cleaning woman narrator in this story collapsed with the final line. My false and circumscribing inferences flew out one of those windows that open when we see the prejudices we bring to whatever we read. No doubt that was the humbling realization that Berlin intended her readers to discover about themselves.

“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?”

James Carroll’s book Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age describes a similar confrontation with perspective taking in the realm of nonfiction. There he related his experiences as a young, very devout Catholic boy reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. He described the life-changing epiphany he had felt upon entering the life of that young Jewish woman with all her undiminished young girl’s hopes and enthusiasm for life, all of which she sustained despite the violent hatred of Jews that ultimately destroyed her and her family.

Entering the perspective of this completely foreign girl provided an unexpected rite of passage for the young James Carroll. From his memorable descriptions of his conflicts with his military general father during the Vietnam crisis in  An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us to his descriptions of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History, each of his books revolves around the need to understand, at the deepest level, the perspective of the other, whether in Vietnam or in a German concentration camp.

In Christ Actually, he used the life and thought of the early-20th-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to underscore the life-and-death consequences of human failure to take on the perspective of other. Bonhoeffer preached and wrote unflinchingly, first from a pulpit and then from a prison cell, about the tragic inability of most people at the time both to understand the perspective of the historical Jesus as a Jew and to see the persecution of Jews in Germany from their perspective. At the heart of his last work, he asked: How would the historical Christ actually respond to Nazi Germany? Only he who shouts for the Jews, he asserted, can “sing their Gregorian chants.” That conclusion led him to act against his own religious beliefs about murder by contributing to two unsuccessful attempts on Hitler’s life and ultimately to being killed in a concentration camp on direct orders from the Führer’s representative.

I write this letter during a time when millions of refugees—most of whom are Muslim—are fleeing horrific conditions and trying to enter Europe, the United States, or anywhere else they can to regain their previous lives. I write this letter on the day a young Jewish boy from my own city of Boston has been killed in Israel during his gap year before college because he was perceived by a young Palestinian boy as the “enemy other.” Developing the deepest forms of reading cannot prevent all such tragedies, but understanding the perspective of other human beings can give ever fresh, varied reasons to find alternative, compassionate ways to deal with the others in our world, whether they are innocent Muslim children crossing treacherous open seas or an innocent Jewish boy from Boston’s Maimonides School, all killed miles and miles away from their homes.

The unsettling reality, however, is that unbeknownst to many of us, including until recently myself, there has begun an unanticipated decline of empathy among our young people. The MIT scholar Sherry Turkle described a study by Sara Konrath and her research group at Stanford University that showed a 40 percent decline in empathy in our young people over the last two decades, with the most precipitous decline in the last ten years. Turkle attributes the loss of empathy largely to their inability to navigate the online world without losing track of their real-time, face-to-face relationships. In her view our technologies place us at a remove, which changes not only who we are as individuals but also who we are with one another.

Reading at the deepest levels may provide one part of the antidote to the noted trend away from empathy. But make no mistake: empathy is not solely about being compassionate toward others; its importance goes further. For it is also about a more in-depth understanding of the Other, an essential skill in a world of increasing connectedness among divergent cultures. Research in the cognitive neurosciences indicates that what I call perspective taking here represents a complex mix of cognitive, social, and emotional processes that leaves ample tracks in our reading-brain circuitry. Brain-imaging research by the German neuroscientist Tania Singer expands former conceptualizations of empathy to show that it involves a whole feeling-thinking network that connects vision, language, and cognition with extensive subcortical networks. Singer emphasizes that this larger network comprises, among other areas, the highly connected neuronal networks for theory of mind, including the insula and the cingulate cortex, which function to connect large expanses of the human brain. Often undeveloped in many individuals on the autism spectrum and lost in a pathological condition called alexithymia, theory of mind refers to an essential human capacity that allows us to perceive, analyze, and interpret the thoughts and feelings of others in our social interactions with them. Singer and her colleagues describe how the very large neurons in these areas are uniquely suited for the extremely rapid communication necessary in empathy between these areas and other cortical and subcortical regions, including, of all places, the motor cortex.

Though it may seem something of a figurative leap to think that the motor cortex is activated when you read, it is closer to a literal, cortical hop. Reconstruct the fleeting image evoked in the last letter with the image of Anna Karenina leaping upon the tracks. For those of you who read that passage in Tolstoy’s novel, you leaped, too. In all likelihood the same neurons you deploy when you move your legs and trunk were also activated when you read that Anna jumped before the train. A great many parts of your brain were activated, both in empathizing with her visceral despair and in some mirror neurons acting this desperation out motorically. Although mirror neurons may have become more popular than they are fully understood, they play a fascinating role in reading. 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.” (Think back to the two Collins quotes.) 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. She and her colleagues were frankly surprised that just by asking their literature graduate students either to read closely or to read for entertainment, different regions of the brain became activated, including multiple areas involved in motion and touch.

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. Thus, when we read about Emma Bovary’s silken skirt, our areas of touch are activated, and when we read about Emma stumbling from her carriage to run in pursuit of Léon, her young, fickle lover, areas responsible for motion in our motor cortex activate, and, more than likely, those in many affective areas do, too.

These studies are the beginning of increasing work on the place of empathy and perspective taking in the neuroscience of literature. The cognitive scientist Keith Oatley, who studies the psychology of fiction, has demonstrated a strong relationship between reading fiction and the involvement of the cognitive processes known to underlie both empathy and theory of mind. 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. It allows us to try on, for a few moments, what it truly means to be another person, with all the similar and sometimes vastly different emotions and struggles that govern others’ lives. The reading circuitry is elaborated by such simulations; so also our daily lives, and so also the lives of those who would lead others.

The novelist Jane Smiley worries that it is just this dimension in fiction that is most threatened by our culture: “My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. . . . But novels can be sidelined. . . . When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people . . . who have no way of understanding us or each other.” It is a chilling reminder of how important the life of reading is for human beings if we are to form an ever more realized democratic society for everyone.

Empathy involves, therefore, both knowledge and feeling. It involves leaving past assumptions behind and deepening our intellectual understanding of another person, another religion, another culture and epoch. In this moment in our collective history, the capacity for compassionate knowledge of others may be our best antidote to the “culture of indifference” that spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Francis describe. It may also be our best bridge to others with whom we need to work together, so as to create a safer world for all its inhabitants. In the very special cognitive space within the reading-brain circuit, pride and prejudice can gradually dissolve through the compassionate understanding of another’s mind.

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 quality of our thought depends on the background knowledge and feelings we each bring to bear.


From Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital WorldUsed with the permission of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2018 by Maryanne Wolf.