The Psychology of Reading and Writing

Any form of art is a highly personal and psychological thing. This is what makes art so fascinating to behold – it is an expression of the person who created it, a form of catharsis and an insight into that person’s mind. If the world is founded on information, then art allows us to leave a kind of ‘imprint’ of our mental state that can survive long after we’ve gone and that can introduce us to new people without having to ever see them in person.

Thus when you sit down to write or to read you are going through a highly fascinating interplay of complex psychological processes. Read on to see how your psychology affects the way you write and read, and the way that writing and reading can likewise affect your psychology…

What Fiction Does to Your Brain

Firstly, it may interest you to know that reading fiction can in fact develop your brain in a number of interesting ways – and moreso than writing reading non-fiction. Brain imaging studies show that when we read a passage of fiction pros, our brain lights up as though we were acting out the story ourselves.

In other words then, if you read a passage that says ‘he ran through the forest and felt the sun beaming down on his face’, your motor cortex will fire as though you were actually running, and then you will almost experience that sun shining warmly on your face. Hell, you’re probably experiencing that right now!

The same is also true for writing fiction. When you write fiction you will create imaginary scenarios starring your characters in which they will go through various actions and have various experiences. Thus, as you write you will find yourself creating amazing landscapes and experiencing adventures that you created. The additional benefit here is that you’re creating scenarios that you want to experience.

All this is very good for your brain. The more your brain fires across the board, the more it will develop and the longer the benefits will last. When thinking about the brain it’s important to keep a ‘use it or lose it’ rule in mind. If you use any area of your brain regularly then you will prevent it from deteriorating. Reading or writing fiction can help you to fight off deterioration and increase the cross-talk between brain regions that leads to great ideas.


Our empathy is our ability to understand what other people are feeling. To create a ‘theory of mind’ and be able to put ourselves in others’ shoes for a time.

As you might imagine, this is something that you stand to gain a lot from reading or writing as in either case you are forced to imagine how characters would react in various circumstances other than yours. If a character you’re reading about is going through a breakup then you might be more sympathetic and better able to understand when someone you know goes through one. This will depend to an extent on the quality of the writing though as well. According to research, reading fiction can improve your ability to empathise with others and increase your scores on emotional IQ tests, however the effect is much more pronounced when you read classic literature as opposed to books like Twilight. The exact reason for this is uncertain, though it’s possibly true that modern fiction goes less in-depth when compared to works by the likes of Dickens.

Interestingly, it may also be that writing or reading about particular events makes you better able to deal with those events should they ever affect you in your life. By reading about a breakup or writing about one, you are forced to imagine yourself in that situation and to deal with what the emotional fallout would be. This in turn means that you’ll be more experienced should you ever have to endure a breakup in future. By reading a broad range of fiction you may well be able to arm yourself with a series of experiences that help you to cope with whatever the future throws at you.


All art is self-portraiture and this is something that’s impossible to get away from. When you write a story your aim will be to create original and fresh characters to populate that narrative, but invariably those characters are going to end up being at least partially based on you. Even if you are ‘acting’ when you imagine what your creation might say to someone else, your best guess of how that person would react is going to be based on how you might act in that situation, or at least on your understanding of other people. For the very best writers though an interesting phenomenon can occur in which the characters seem to take on a life of their own – changing your plot because they’ve become so well formed that you know they can only act in a certain way. At this point the dialogue can almost feel as though it’s writing itself which is a highly rewarding and exciting feeling.

This also applies to writing non-fiction. This article for example will contain traces of my ‘finger print’ and if you were to look into it very deeply you could probably learn some things about me. When you write non-fiction the aim should always be to be objective, and yet with the best will of the world there will be traces of bias – even if that is only in the order that you choose to report the facts in or the amount of space you give each point. Everything you put onto paper when you write is distorted by your own views, your own mood and your own vocabulary and understanding of the subject matter.

Writers’ Block

A large element of ego and of expectation also comes into play when you are writing and you can often find it very difficult to judge your own work. Often you will find yourself staring blankly at a white page completely frozen and with no inspiration of what to write.

This is where your psychology starts getting in the way of what you are trying to accomplish – and often your inability to write has nothing to do with what it is you’re trying to write. More often writers’ block can be caused by fear for instance – a fear that you won’t be able to complete your work, or that you are embarking on such a large project. Writers’ block thus will often occur when you sit down to write and you have that entire novel/100 articles to write ahead of you (the enormity of the task freezes you and prevents you from going any further), or it will occur when you near the end of your work and have to face the thought of handing it in or turning it into a book. Is it good enough? And what will you do now that it’s gone?

Reading then is an intensely personal, emotional and cognition-heavy process that does a lot more for your psychology than you probably realise. Writing perhaps even more so. So if you want to develop your brain and take yourself on a journey of self-discovery, maybe it’s time to start writing that novel?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *