Immersive reading

Imagine a story so compelling, with sensory detail so rich, that you lose track of time and place and are transported from the reality of your living room into the setting of the story and the lives of the characters. Happens all the time, right? I suspect that everyone who calls themselves an avid reader has had this kind of experience. And the more you read, the easier it is to slip into this immersive reading state.

Research reveals that during this state our minds actually process what we read in a different manner. Instead of simply decoding the words and passing the information on for evaluation, our minds build a representation of the meaning of the words and passes that on to cognitive centers that process our experience of reality. The input to these centers from our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin is replaced by a ‘data stream’ fabricated from material in the story we are reading.

If we can say that it requires a ‘good story’ for this to happen, what are the characteristics that such a story might need? Rich environmental detail to provide sufficient sensory information; somewhat slower pacing to provide time for our mind to create the alternative reality, especially at the beginning with unfamiliar worlds; emotional and moral complexity that builds nuance; copious allusion and metaphor that requires more of the brain be involved in processing the story; a consistent or slowly shifting perspective that doesn’t pop us out of the story.

But there are three parts to the process of reading: the story, the medium and the reader. It turns out that the medium is just as important to facilitate the process of immersive reading as the other two parts. In general terms, the medium is the means by which we perceive the story, be it a book, a Nook, an iPad or a Kindle. But there is one that is far superior to the others as the preferred medium for immersive reading: a book.

The reason for this lies in the built-in ‘limitations’ of the printed page. There is no interaction beyond turning the page, no links to consider, no adjustments to brightness, no buttons to keep track of. All of these things are ‘outside’ the story and our mind is not able to process the story as an immersive experience when these things have to be included in the information stream.

One could argue that a simple reader might come close and it probably does in the hands of one highly familiar with its use, but once the mind associates a device with multiple functions, the brain is spending at least a small amount of time wondering if any of those other functions will pop up and need attention. That’s just the way it works and it breaks the immersive experience.

In addition to experiencing a grander story during immersive reading, there are other happy-brain functions that occur. The experience leaves a sense of satisfaction that comes from having one’s brain both deeply and broadly engaged. A story with complex moral dilemmas or realistically suspenseful situations provides the mind with vigorous exercise and by taking us into the mind of the character, they act to increase our capacity for perception, intuition, empathy and judgement. In a similar way, with a realistic situation our minds naturally analyze the available information, consider the alternatives, compare and contrast potential outcomes with our memories and form opinions, all enhanced by what is probably a reality dissimilar to our own.

So the best way to get lost in the story is to pick up a book, find a comfortable, relaxing place to read when you have plenty of time and let your mind go.