Reading, Stories and the Human Brain

Story telling is common to all human cultures. But why are people driven to tell and read or listen to stories?

Humans understand the world through narrative. We use stories to make sense of our experiences and to share those experiences with each other. We use them to communicate ideas, to decode complexity in the world, and to organize our thoughts and dreams.

Though many of us take reading for granted, it really is an astounding experience. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, you can stare at a bunch of funny dark squiggles and this transports you into the mind of another person, perhaps even someone dead for thousands of years.

Story… Our Evolutionary Advantage

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that one of the primary advantages that we as Homo Sapiens have is our ability to tell stories. It is this trait that allowed us to dominate over other fledgling intelligent species.

According to sociological research, the maximum size of a group of humans held together by common experience and gossip is about 150. Beyond that, it’s exceedingly difficult to really get to know anyone or coordinate common activities.

Unless you can tell effective stories. In a broad context that means communicating non-physical concepts like a common value system for items trades or a common explanation for the weather. The power of stories is that they enable a virtually unlimited number of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.

“In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens. But in a conflict of hundreds, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance. Neanderthals could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell–and revise–stories about tribal spirits. Without an ability to to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges.”

– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

What’s Going on in the Brain When You Read?

The human brain is great at pattern recognition. Visually, we learn very quickly to identify faces. Auditorily, we learn sounds and music.

When we read, a part of our brain called the “visual word form area” in the left occipito-temporal cortex decodes the letter patterns, interpreting a word as a visual pattern–we see words as little pictures. This pattern is then linked to its phonetical elements. That means that as we read, we hear the written words in our head. Other parts of the brain are then used to perform the linguistic decoding, ultimately deciphering the word’s meaning through a neural pattern where the word is placed the context of the sentence, which is placed in the context of the greater narrative.


In 2006 a Spanish study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that reading the word cinnamon activates olfactory regions of the brain. (Basically fMRI works by sensing changes in oxygenation and blood flow in the brain in response to neural activity–when a specific part of your brain is active, the fMRI signal lights up.) Of course, this study has been expanded on in the last decade and a half. Words like “perfume” or “coffee” also activate the primary olfactory cortex while control worlds like “chair” or “key” do not. Action words like “lick, kick, or bite” have been associated with activation of the primary motor cortex, suggesting that they trigger a mental simulation of the motor act without the associated overt body movement. Similarly metaphors involving texture like “he had leathery hands” activate the sensory cortex.

What all of this means is that the act of reading does more than just play a movie in your head. Your brain is actively engaged in simulating the experience you’re reading about. To the brain, in many respects, it feels as if what happens in the story has happened to you, or at least someone close to you.

This is why your pulse races in those moments of suspense with the monster is sneaking up on an unsuspecting hero, or when your eyes tear up at the end of every dog story ever.

And that’s why reading is so important. It allows us to efficiently expand our cumulative catalogue of experiences in life beyond our own physical, social, financial, etc. boundaries. And we can do it safely and relatively free of negative consequences. Other research points to correlations between reading and higher degrees of empathy, emotional intelligence, and measures of social development.

Of course, maybe that’s all relatively obvious. And I suppose there are some implied caveats. I would imagine, for example that a lot can depend on the details of what a person reads.

When it comes to my own genre of science fiction, for example, will reading it make you smarter?

Well, reading I, Robot is certainly not the same as taking an introductory course in machine learning. But I think one of the most important things that science fiction can do is inspire further engagement with science. It can increase one’s vocabulary and exposure to ideas. And certainly, there are lots of examples where speculation in science fiction has led to actual technological advancements.

Look for example at how much influence Star Trek has had on the technology of the world.

Will technology ever replace reading?

Certainly other forms of entertainment compete for reading time. The average Canadian spends over 3 hours per day watching television. But such activities don’t seem to convey the same benefits.

I would argue that even if we are able to develop virtual reality to a completely immersive experience, reading is unlikely to go away. Reading fiction gives the reader the capacity not just to experience sensation, but to enter into a character’s thoughts. We see how characters react to their circumstances and how they assume agency, make decisions and take action.

So pick up a book, because reading and sharing stories is one our human superpowers.

May I recommend…