Why do we get a mental picture when we read? © Getty Images

Why do we get a mental picture when reading?

Different areas of the brain build up information about the scenes, actions and characters, relating them to what you already know and feel.

Asked by: Megan Malpas, Cambridge

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Reading is a complex, multi-layered process, starting with detecting letters, recognising words and groups of words, then analysing sentence structure and meaning.

Different areas of the brain build up information about the scenes, actions and characters, relating them to what you already know and feel. Visual and auditory areas of your brain are at work when you read, as you subvocalise the words when one of the book’s characters is speaking. Your lips and tongue may even move, your spine might tingle and your muscles may tense in response to the story. All this contributes to what we think of as pictures in our head – yet in reality our brains probably contain no such thing.

Indeed, recent theories treat vision more like an activity or interaction with the world rather than a picture-making process. Oddly enough, more detailed written descriptions may not result in richer or more satisfying mental imagery. Sometimes, the simplest descriptions allow you to create your own imagined world with far more detail and emotional involvement.


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