Reading books in this setting can help you be a better problem solver

Words and sentences can have very different meanings depending on how one interprets them. For example, telling a fairly new girlfriend or boyfriend that you love their personality may be considered a nice compliment or an unattractive sign of clinginess depending on how your date processes that statement. 

Similarly, imagine the last line of text in a novel or short story reading: “he picked up his old notebook, and immediately knew what had to be done.” That ending allows the reader to imagine the conclusion of the story themselves. Depending on how they had interpreted the protagonist’s words and actions throughout the book, that imagined ending will probably vary greatly from reader to reader.

When it comes to reading specifically, most people don’t think it matters where or in what setting they do their reading. Many like to read during morning commutes or lunch breaks, while others can’t help but cap off a busy day with a good book in bed. Interestingly, however, a new study finds that the settings in which we choose to read can actually have a big impact on how we understand that content.

Researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the Carlos III Health Institute have found that reading in the company of other people is associated with more creative, integrated, and nuanced language processing. Conversely, reading alone appears to promote more automatic, almost robotic, language interpretation.

“However, when we read alone, our language processing is more algorithmic, in other words, more automatic, limited and subject to rules”, explains Laura Jiménez Ortega, a researcher from the Department of Psychobiology at the UCM and the UCM-ISCIII Centre for Evolution and Human Behaviour.

To be clear, the reading doesn’t have to be done aloud to others. It appears simply reading quietly while around at least one other person sparks changes in brain activity.

The study’s authors made this discovery by studying participants’ electrical brain activity as they either read in a solitary setting or the company of another person.

While hooked up to an EEG machine, participants read a series of paragraphs containing either semantic (logical) or syntactic (grammar) errors. Subjects who did so in the company of another person displayed distinct activity within the precuneus area of their brain, a region associated with social behaviors/processing and attention. Also, on a more observable level, these participants’ performances on the task suggested more creative, integrated language comprehension in comparison to subjects reading alone.

When reading in the presence of another person, subjects’ brains showed a pattern of electrical activity consistent with more complex, multifaceted thought patterns upon noticing syntactic errors. Meanwhile, the same types of errors read by people reading alone incited a different pattern of electrical activity that’s associated with more streamlined, automatic processing.

In conclusion, the research team behind these findings believe their work may impact a wide variety of fields, including academics and science. Perhaps scientists and scholars the world over should be doing most of their reading around others.

“Given that company favors a more creative and integrated understanding whereas isolation leads to more detailed and systematic processing, we need to start thinking more about the impact of social interaction in research, in education and in professional settings where language comprehension is fundamental”, Jiménez Ortega concludes.

So, if you didn’t love the last book you read, try giving it a once over one more time while you’re around other people. You just may end up viewing the story in an entirely different light.

The full study can be found here, published in Cortex.