What happens when you read?

As any book lover knows, diving into a great novel is an immersive experience that makes your brain come alive with imagery and emotions. 

But do you also know that the process of reading causes the structure of the brain to be physically changed? 

Brain Activity when you read

Reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain.  When you read the brain links each word to the spoken equivalent.  One part of your brain analyses the word’s meaning, while another part makes it possible to automatically recognise words.  Reading stimulates the left part of the brain where you use your imagination.  Some scientists show that reading is an empathy workout, putting the reader in the character’s shoes.  For example if a character plays a sport, areas of your brain are activated as if you were physically playing the sport.

Over the years, doctors, scientists, and researchers have confirmed that reading is a stress-reducing activity that can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It’s been proven to improve people’s memories, increase brain power, and even enhance empathic skills. 

There are differences between reading paper books and digital readers.  With the paper version the reader takes more time to process the narrative  and increases the capacity for longer attention spans.  Which do you find more easily to remember the contents by, their title, their cover or whether they were in paper or electronic for?

Scientists say that reading e-books lack “spatial navigability”, physical clues like the number of pages which gives the reader a sense of location.  The brain can adapt to e-books quickly as little as 7 days. Some e-readers include spatial landmarks like page numbers, percentage read to help overcome the physical lack of the book. 

How did humans start this literary experience?

Today we take the inseparable twins, reading and writing for granted.  But what would life be like with nothing to read?  So when did people start to write?  By drawing pictures?  When did speech evolve into writings?

A quick troll on the internet showed these were not easy questions to answer.  But in general four independent writing systems have been identified.

  • Mesopotamia  between 3400-3300 BC.  Pictorial signs  were gradually substituted by a complex system of characters of the Sumerian language.  From 2900BC these characters started to be impressed into wet clay  with a reed stylus, known as cuneiform.
  • Egypt around 3200 BC.  Their writing was in the form of hieroglyphics, in ink on papyrus. Remember the Rosetta Stone?
  • Shang dynasty in China around 1300 BC, This style of writing is known as oracle bone script – etched pictures on bones.
  • Mesoamerica (lowland areas of Southern Mexico and Guatemala, between 900-600 BC.  The most widely known, is the classic Maya script.


Geoscientists have confirmed that the Australian land is the oldest mass on earth, and is about 4.4billion years old.  It took a long time before our ancestors appeared,  about six million years ago and the modern form of humans, homo sapiens only evolved about 200,000 years ago. 

Aboriginal Australian genomic sequence obtained from a 100-year-old lock of hair donated by an Aboriginal man, support the hypothesis that present-day Aboriginal Australians descend from the earliest humans to occupy Australia, likely representing one of the oldest continuous populations outside Africa, upwards of 65,000 years ago. The remains of Mungo man and woman who lived some 42,000 years, are perhaps the most important human remains found in Australia.

So why haven’t any Australian writings been found before the historic letter Woollarawarre Bennelong wrote to Governor Arthur Phillip in 1796, after his return from England?   He was an aboriginal man who learnt English and became the go-between and interpreter for the governor. 


The Aboriginal people have an oral history dating way back with stories being told and passed down from generation to generation.  Their rock art employs two main designs, one uses engraved geometric shapes – circles, arcs, dots or animal tracks and the other contains figurative forms.  The  oldest one, in the Kimberley region is a kangaroo and dates back 17,300 years. 

Other interesting facts

The origins of writing still interest anthropologists as shown in the rare African writing system – the Vai script of Liberia, first created from scratch in about 1834 by eight completely illiterate men who wrote in ink made from crushed berries.

The earliest known female author named in history, the Akkadian princess and High Priestess Enheduanna, who composed temple hymns around 2300 BCE and signed her name onto the clay tablets on which she inscribed her works. 

Early written texts were meant to be read out loud, as most people were illiterate.  The text was a continuous stream of words that had to be disentangled. Reading initially was only for the privileged, wealthy people, and the church. When education became more widespread, most women were still denied the pleasure of reading until well into the 19th century.

Punctuation was used for the first time only around 200 BCE, and was erratic well into the middle ages.  Has it reappeared in today’s writing?

Alexander the Great is thought to be the first person who read silently in 330BC. Silent reading made reading a private activity – making room for more options in the choice of a reading nook.

Chaucer recommended reading in bed in the 14th century, Omar Khyyam and Mary Shelley advocated outdoor reading, while Henry Miller and Marcel Proust preferred the absolute solitude of the bathroom. Even today it is not unusual to find a small stock of reading material in the privy.


The earliest printing technology originated in China, Japan, and Korea. The imperial state of China produced a large volume of printed material, printed by rubbing paper against inked woodblock, to sustain its extensive bureaucratic system. This system attained widespread popularity by the 15th century. In the 1430s, Johannes Gutenberg developed the first mechanical printing press at Strasbourg, Germany.  

Churches all over Europe embarked on a spree to educate the masses, and through the establishment of village schools, literacy grew. Periodicals started being published in the early 18th century, increasing further the population of dedicated readers. in 1849, Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers was serialised in a magazine, and attracted many readers with the affordability of magazines.

Earliest printing methods

Woodblock printing (also known as xylography) started in China in 593 AD. In the woodblock technique, ink is applied to letters carved upon a wooden board, which is then pressed onto paper.  The woodblock technique starts with the transcription of the manuscript nto thin slightly waxed sheets of paper by a professional calligrapher. The wax prevents the ink from being as readily absorbed into the paper, allowing more ink to be absorbed onto another surface. The paper is placed ink side down onto a wooden block on which a thin layer of rice paste has been thinly spread. The back of the paper is rubbed with a flat palm-fibre brush so that the wet rice paste absorbs some of the ink and an impression of the inked area is left on the block. The engraver uses a set of sharp-edged tools to cut away the uninked areas of the wood block in essence raising an inverse image of the original calligraphy above the background, just as you would with a linocut.

The other method was moveable type printing, where the printing  board is assembled using different letter types.  A precursor to lithography. In china Bi Sheng developed the first known movable-type system for printing around 1040 AD  using ceramic materials.  When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone.

Sneg moveable type system


The Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal in the 7th century BCE, compiled a library of clay tablets in Nineveh (modern-day Iraq) and threatened anyone with terrible fates if they were misplaced. Centuries later Ptolemy, a successor of Alexander the Great founded the library of Alexandria with the short-term purpose of organising the vast reams of documents that had been stockpiled in the city, and all ships stopping at Alexandria had to surrender all books on board to be copied (or retained) at the library.  The history of cataloguing existed way back with the Sumerian record keepers.  The library of Alexandria was later catalogued by titles into lists according to categories and used an alphabetic order within the categories.

Writing started out on clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, folded works, parchment, velum, and paper and eventually books. In the Asian world, such as China, writing is based on characters Japanese and Korean, vertically in columns going from right to left.  In the Western world writing is based on an alphabet.   There is a science behind why a line is about 66 characters long – it is the in the art of saccading (the rapid movement of the eye).  Too long and we get lost, two short and we become distracted by the frequency of the movement. 

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, a delightfully well-written account of the evolution of the reader through the ages.  Some readers have mentioned this book is not as interesting as his others. He also wrote books on reading that children could enjoy such as  “How Pinocchio learned to read” and “Magic land of toys”.

The teaser for Tom Mole’s book “The Secret Life of Books” states  “We love books. We take them to bed with us. They weigh down our suitcases on holiday. We display them on our bookshelves, give them as gifts, write our names in them. We take them for granted. And all the time, our books are leading a double life. The Secret Life of Books is about everything that isn’t just the words. It’s about how books transform us as individuals, the stories they tell us about ourselves. It’s about how books – and readers – have evolved over time”the inseparable twins”