The science of reading: How to cater to the reading brain | Turtl
Learn more about how we read and what content creators can do to produce content optimised for the reading brain.
*The science of reading*
**How to cater to the reading brain
How the reading brain works
Humans are not born with brains wired to read, but reading has the profound ability to rewire our brains
Over the three hundred thousand or so years of human history, our brain has evolved spectacular capabilities, and none are more wondrous than our ability to read.
It's difficult to imagine a world without literacy, but reading as we know it is a relatively young invention, dating back only a few thousand years.
Maryanne Wolf explains in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain:
"With this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species."
From pictures to words
As every pre-school teacher knows too well, reading is not a genetically inbuilt skill, like talking. We need to be actively taught how to do it.
When the first scripts appeared, they took the form of pictograms, illustrating the objects they reflected: an ear of corn, a scythe, a man. Along the way, our brains developed the connections required to move away from literal symbols, simple object recognition, to decipher and recognise words, a kind of shorthand code for much greater concepts.
[Reading is] made possible by the brain's ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain's design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become.
Rewiring the brain
We're able to learn this code as a result of our brain's neuroplasticity, its ability to shape new pathways. Our reading power is the result of connections made by the brain between the areas responsible for visual, auditory, linguistic and conceptual tasks. Reading also activates the limbic system, responsible for emotion, learning and memory.
When we read, our brain is essentially performing a symphony of activity. And just like our ability to play the violin requires practice to excel, so too does our ability to read.
The reading brain in action
The act of reading begins with attention. We must disengage from whatever else we're doing, pull our focus to the text and zero in on the words.
The reading brain then has three jobs to do.
- Decode: Recognise patterns
- Understand: Search for meaning
- Feel: Assign value
Expert readers have trained their brains to decode text nearly automatically, freeing up bandwidth to explore meaning and prioritise what's of value.
Readers bring more than their attention
How the reading brain probes a text for meaning depends on the individual's quality of attention, background knowledge and ability to hypothesise, as well as our life experience.
This is why we can read something at 25 and again at 40 and have two completely different experiences of the text. These variations are reflections of how we emotionally respond to our comprehension: what we empathise with, what motivates us, makes us laugh, fear, or question.
The benefits of reading
Our ability to read and write, to document and share knowledge across time and space, has had a profound impact on every aspect of human life. As Wolf writes: "Literacy made it unnecessary to reinvent the wheel."
Researchers have shown how reading improves our intelligence, our memory, makes us more creative and more empathetic.
We can taste, hear and see what we read
A tool for behaviour change
When we read a story, our brain reacts to the narrative in the same way it would if we were experiencing the events first-hand, thanks to the limbic system. This is why storytelling is such a powerful vehicle for influence. A story is far more likely to deepen empathy and change behaviour than a fact.
Without words, without writing, and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity
Herman Hesse, German poet
One reason for this is the brain's automatic visualisation of what we're reading. "By creating mental images from the words on a page or screen," writes psychologist Donna Wilson, "we tap into both the verbal and visual-spatial representational systems, making abstract concepts more concrete and thus more meaningful and memorable."
Writing you can taste
Metaphors alone can be more effective at stimulating activity in the limbic system than literal sentences, whether part of a story or not. Researchers from Princeton have even shown how words relating to taste, such as a person described as "sweet" or an argument "bitter", not only activate the emotional brain more, but also the areas responsible for the physical act of tasting. We can taste, hear and see what we read.
Writing and designing for the reading brain
Understanding what the reading brain is up to can help you create content that caters to it
Taking into account the fundamental tasks our readers' brains are executing when they encounter our content gives us the opportunity to offer up our ideas and messages in better ways. The benefit? Deeper engagement.
In the pursuit of an engaged audience, quality is imperative. Your writing, medium and design need to absorb the reader's attention, rewarding their efforts by stirring motivation and interest.
Remembering that attention is a component of visual perception helps us understand why the medium is often more important than the message when it comes to engaging someone.
It also speaks to why images and video typically grab attention more easily than a page of text.
In fact, de-coding theory argues that text accompanied by visuals improves our memory of the content. This has been substantiated by a number of studies, one of which shows how pairing of text and visuals improves the persuasiveness of the content by 43%.
Let the world fall away
When we bring our attention fully to what we watch or read, we stop 'seeing' the world around us and fall into the experience completely as our mind chews it over.
Reading fresh metaphors briefly excites the brain in ways familiar ones, like surfing the web, do not
It's akin to flow, a state that Joe Molan, Social Historian and Author, describes as occurring "when you are in pursuit of something that feels both worthwhile and just the right amount of difficult."
A magician's task is to direct the gaze, to decide what the audience lingers on. The same goes for the writer.
Joe Moran, Social Historian
Aid the search for meaning
Once attention has been granted, the reading brain is on the search for patterns it can establish between the text and the context. For writers creating content for commercial reasons, the efforts of the brain to establish meaning in text is another reason why audience profiling and personalisation is important - you need to at least try to cater for the varying cognitive and experiential baggage your readers will bring to the encounter.
Consider language & design
This means using tone, syntax, metaphor and white space - the very shape of the text - to direct attention towards what matters. "A magician's task," writes Moran, "is to direct the gaze, to decide what the audience lingers on. The same goes for the writer."
From a design perspective, using things like pull quotes, imagery, different font sizes and layouts all contribute to aiding how a reader cognitively navigates and interprets a piece of content.
Pairing text with imagery is proven to improve comprehension by more than 300%
An interesting subject presented in a boring way is increasingly unforgivable. A boring subject presented in an interesting way is an oxymoron. If you nail the execution, you can make dish water face off against unicorns in the battle for attention and win. There are a multitude of ways to accomplish this kind of feat, depending on your medium.
Sentence-processing research has shown how reading fresh metaphors briefly excites the brain in ways familiar ones, like surfing the web, do not. The brain appreciates the challenge of originality - as long as the meaning is still recognisable.
We already experience stories as though they are happening to us. So it stands to reason that giving readers even an ounce of control over the narrative engages the limbic system, the seat of emotion, even more. This can be done most profoundly by new mediums like VR, but for the humbler digital content creator, incorporating elements like video, virtual tours and polls. In print, fold-outs and pop-ups can offer moments of delight.
Complementary imagery is one way of setting tone, framing arguments and priming readers for particular responses. As is the use of white space to break down chunks of text into mouthfuls for the brain to savour before being offered up the next point to digest.
Typographers know that typefaces can shift the whole tone of a piece of writing
Engaging the emotional brain isn't just relevant to fiction writers; non-fiction writing - which includes thought leadership, newsletters, blogs and so forth - can better convince and convert readers through compelling use of language and design. Marketers take note.
Non-fiction language crafted for emotional engagement.
Vote for your favourite:
- We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones – Richard Dawkins
- Consistency is the playground of dull minds – Yuval Noah Harari
- Obsession is a break, a source of drag, not a badge of creativity, a mark of genius or an inconvenient side effect of some greater function – David Adam
- Remember, the most common thing about common sense is how uncommon it is – Jason Jennings
Three key ideas to take with you
The invention of reading has underpinned the advancement of humanity, paving our way to the age of information.
A keen understanding of the psychology of reading is relevant to all marketers and communications professionals, as we strive to engage the humans that make up our target audiences.
With that in mind, here are three important take aways.
Use visuals to grab and keep reader attention
Reading uses the visual centres of the brain, which comprehends, remembers and is persuaded by text paired with images more easily than text alone.
Keep your language vivid and fresh to engage the brain
The brain's knack for visualising and experiencing what's being read means vivid and unexpected language prompts a greater emotional response from readers inciting deeper engagement.
Be mindful of your medium
How you present communications matters more than what it is you're trying to say when it comes to attention and engagement. Give people a reading experience their brain is inclined to both enjoy and remember.