In the US, many of us don’t get as much vacation as our overseas friends. However, there’s another activity we can do often, from anywhere, for a fraction of the cost, which provides similar benefits. We can read books.
When you’re immersed in a story, your brain reacts in a way that’s strikingly similar to taking a vacation abroad. It’s how we can experience the new, reboot ourselves, and restore that elusive sense of calm that’s missing from our everyday lives.
Let’s assume you’re reading Eat, Pray, Love. When you read, you don’t put Elizabeth Gilbert back in Italy, twirling an al dente carbonara – you put yourself there. According to Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, functional MRI studies show that when we read a story, our brains don’t light up like an observer. Instead, they look just like the doer’s brain.
Here’s another way to think about it. Have you ever looked at a movie theater that’s full of people watching a hair raising action scene? The hero is dangling off a cliff, but it’s the viewer’s heart rate that increases. Some of them start squirming in their seats. That’s the body’s reaction to what the brain thinks is taking place.
Reading is living vicariously. When it comes to your brain activity, you’re not sitting at home staring at black squiggles on white pages. You’re roaming the streets of Italy or you’re hanging off a cliff – and you didn’t even have to spring for the life insurance.
Travel gives us the opportunity to meet people in other countries and learn about their perspectives and values. It may seem like the solitary act of reading does exactly the opposite.
The stereotype of a book worm couldn’t differ more from an intrepid traveler. Travelers regale everyone with stories about Maasaii warriors in Kenya, German festival goers in Bavaria, and street hawkers in Bangalore. They’re at the top of most dinner party invitation lists.
I was recently reminded that books can have the same effect.
For dinner one evening, I found myself seated at the end of a long table next to a young, quiet friend-of-a-friend. Across from us was an empty chair, everyone else was further down the table. In vain, I tried the usual topics – where are you from, what do you do? He responded in short grunts. Italy. I’m a neurosurgeon.
It seemed like I was doomed to spend the evening in silence, punctuated by basic questions and terse answers.
Then I remembered a doctor I knew well, a character in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Had he ever heard of Lydgate?
As a young physician, Lydgate enters his profession with great ideals. He plans to open a charity hospital and investigate the poor man’s disease, typhus. However, he succumbs to the lure of success and ends up working on gout, a disease of the wealthy. Over time, the consequences of these decisions haunt him in the form of a deep, abiding sense of failure.
As I shared Lydgate’s early aspirations and anecdotes, the neurosurgeon started asking for more: “And then what happened? … What did he do? … Why?”
He was so engrossed in this character that bit by bit, he got the whole storyline out of me. We even stayed at the table for a coffee after everyone else had moved on. He had the sense that I appreciated his inclinations and had an insight into a path that lay open to him.
Through Lydgate, a character in a novel, I managed to talk to this neurosurgeon in the confident tones of someone who understood his challenges.
It was a powerful reminder that our entry into other people’s worlds can come from books as well as travel. By gaining some understanding of the other person’s profession or culture, we can quickly forge a more meaningful connection.
We’ve all reached the point at which we need to go away to restore balance and access our relaxed, happy selves again.
It turns out that your brain does something similar when you read:
“Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.” – The New Yorker
It makes sense because the act of reading is similar to meditating. Reading helps us disconnect by allowing us to enter a story and feel the emotions of the protagonist. Just like with meditation, when we return to the present, we’re more aware and relaxed than before.
The key is to practice reading regularly. Although a vacation will plunge us into a peak state of happiness on day eight, reading contributes gradually to this shift.
The time spent reading often feels like a luxury, but it’s a boon for those who want to broaden their world and contribute to their sense of well-being. When you put your book down and return to the bustle of daily life, you’re likely to find a calmer, happier self.