I sometimes try this tactic with students, talking about the release of endorphins that happens when a rhyming contract is completed, etc., but mostly they seem to want to think it’s a spiritual thing and not a matter of simple chemistry/mechanics. Whatevs. Science says your brain is doing lots of crazy shit when you read a good book, and I happen to hold with science.
It turns out when we’re immersed in a great book, it’s not just the parts of the brain that deal with language processing that are hard at work. In fact, when we’re deeply engaged with a story our brains mirror the actions and feelings of the characters. So if someone in the novel you can’t put down is swimming, the sections of your brain that would light up if you yourself were paddling across a pool also activate.
“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,” writes Wolf. “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.”
Or, in other words, when you read about Anna Kareninaleaping onto the railroad tracks, parts of your brain involved in motor control quite literally leap with her. When you read about a silky dress or rustling leaves, sections of your brain dealing with sensory perception activate. At a basic brain level, we really do experience the same thing the characters do. We don’t just understand a book — on a neurological level, we live it.