60-Second Science

Brain's Moving Experience When Reading

A study in the journal Psychological Science finds that reading about an activity activates the same brain regions involved in performing that activity. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Remember Dick and Jane? And their dog Spot? Maybe you read about them in first grade. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run! Well, a new study in the journal Psychological Science suggests that not only did you see Spot run, but you ran, too. At least in your mind. Because reading about something turns on the same brain regions that control doing that thing.

For years, scientists have suspected that our brains simulate the activities we read about. In behavioral studies, people who are reading about scoring a soccer goal react more quickly when asked to make a kicking motion than when told to, say, pat their heads. Now, researchers have used real-time brain-imaging techniques to watch what happens when people read a story. Twenty-eight subjects took in tales from a day in the life of Raymond, a seven-year-old boy who does things like get out of bed and sit through an English lesson. Sure enough, when Raymond scurries to his school desk, cells in the readers’ brains that govern scurrying also spring to life.

Fortunately, the copycatting is confined to the brain—we don’t actually act out the things we read about. If we did, you wouldn’t want to sit next to someone skimming the daily paper.

—Karen Hopkin

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