22. November 2021

Inner Calm Increases Reading Pleasure

Reading in a state of flow.

Researchers from the MPI for Empirical Aesthetics have shown that a reader’s state of mind can influence reading pleasure. (Picture: MPI for Empirical Aesthetics)

“There is strength in serenity,” goes the old saying. But the idea that our state of mind can influence the pleasure we take in reading, is new information. Now, research on the matter, conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt/Main, Germany, has just been published as an open-access article in the journal Reading Research Quarterly.

For their study, the researchers used different translations of Homer’s Odyssey. The 84 study participants were each assigned one of three different versions of the same chapter to read, with the versions characterized by different levels of stylistic difficulty: low, intermediate, or high.

The participants’ heart rates were measured before and while they read. After they finished reading, they were questioned about their experience of flow. Flow, a concept from the field of psychology, is generally defined as the positive state of mind one experiences when completely immersed in an activity. New research has shown that the experience of flow also plays a role in the activity of reading and coincides with increased reading pleasure. As first author Birte Thissen explains:

“Understanding flow experiences in challenging situations, whether they involve reading or other activities, is an important goal for our research. Such situations after all are often associated with learning. And flow experiences motivate us to engage with learning opportunities.”

The researchers found no indication that flow during reading affects cardiovascular activity, but they did discover a converse relationship: The heart rate prior to reading has an effect on the state of flow during reading. Readers who had a low heart rate and high heart rate variability experienced comparatively greater flow while reading the texts of intermediate and high difficulty.

Such a cardiovascular activation pattern indicates a state of inner calm and increased receptivity. Readers who demonstrated it were better equipped to engage higher-level cognitive challenges while experiencing flow – along with the reading pleasure it coincides with.  


Original Publication:
Thissen, B. A., Schlotz, W., Abel, C., Scharinger, M., Frieler, K., Merrill, J., Haider, T., & Menninghaus, W. (2021). At the Heart of Optimal Reading Experiences: Cardiovascular Activity and Flow Experiences in Fiction Reading. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi:10.1002/rrq.448

Birte Thissen