A Winter afternoon with a book: Relaxing for you, but dynamic for your brain


It’s Winter time: the perfect opportunity to stay inside, settle in by the heater, and get stuck into a good book.

It can be such a relaxing and pleasurable activity, but inside your brain there is in fact a highly complex flurry of activity occurring!

What is your brain doing when you are reading?

Reading is an extremely complex task and while you are relaxing into an enthralling novel, your brain is performing a number of amazing tasks.

  • Visual recognition – Your eyes are sending messages about all those little squiggles on the page for your brain to interpret as letters, words and punctuation.
  • Phonological processing – Your brain is tapping into your understanding of the sound structure of spoken language; that is, the notion that spoken words are made up of sounds in different sequences and combinations.
  • Decoding – your brain then has the task of translating the squiggles on the page to sounds and words.

However, we can still read some words even if we don’t know how to pronounce them – we may know what words such as ‘hyperbole’ or ‘quinoa’ mean when we read them but have no idea how to pronounce them out loud.

  • Word retrieval – your long term memory acts as a sort of dictionary, giving you the meanings of words that you are reading.
  • Meaning making – your brain incorporates and uses your prior knowledge and understanding of the world to construct meaning from sentences and paragraphs, to understand what is happening in the story.
  • Imagination – the creative and imaginative aspects of your brain works to develop a rich visualisation of the story, the setting and the characters, what they look like, what their experiences are.
  • Emotional connection – your brain is using emotional centres to recognise the feelings, motivations and thoughts of the characters.

Sometimes you might empathise with the characters, other times the characters are unlikeable or extremely flawed. Your interpersonal skills are used in order to understand the relationships between characters.

These are just some of the intricate tasks that your brain is engaged in while you are reading a book. It’s an amazing process – or set of processes, really.

When thinking about all that is required for reading, it is easy to see that the act of learning to read is extremely complicated and one that requires a number of skills and abilities to fall into place. When a person is able to read with ease and enjoyment, it can be a pleasure for life.

Happy reading!

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