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How to connect a reader and an ad

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Staff writer ▼ | February 5, 2009
reading poandpo adA new brain-imaging study is shedding light on what it means to "get lost" in a good book - or your advertisement.

How to emotionally connect the message and the reader is the question of utmost importance to every company. Now scientists offer a glimpse into readers mind. The new research suggest that readers create vivid mental simulations of the sounds, sights, tastes and movements described in a textual narrative while simultaneously activating brain regions used to process similar experiences in real life.

"When we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story," says Jeffrey M. Zacks, study co-author and director of the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis. Nicole Speer, lead author of this study, says findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise.

Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.

Reading, one of the most important skills human beings can acquire, has been difficult to study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) because researchers seldom have access to expensive scanning equipment for long periods of time. Reading long passages of text also poses challenges because participants must remain very still for the scans to be effective. In an effort to minimize eye movements, participants are immobilized within the brain-scanning device and presented with text one-word-at-a-time on an adjacent computer screen.

In this study, Speer and colleagues used fMRI to look for evidence of mental simulation during the reading of extended stories. Each participant read four stories of less than 1500 words excerpted from a simple, 1940s-era book about the daily activities of a young boy. Participants were shown text passages on a computer screen that displayed one word at a time; reading all four stories took most participants about 40 minutes.

The researchers had carefully coded the stories so that they knew when important features of the story were changing. For example, changes in the objects a character interacted with (e.g., "pulled a light cord") were associated with increases in a region in the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions.

Changes in characters' locations (e.g., "went through the front door into the kitchen") were associated with increases in regions in the temporal lobes that are selectively activate when people view pictures of spatial scenes. Overall, the data supported the view that readers construct mental simulations of events when reading stories.

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