Last week I was at the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, and there was plenty going on – old friends to meet up with, cyber friends to get to know in the real world, and new friendships to make. I had a brilliant time, but a lot of it was intense. Usually I spend most of my day alone with just me and my dog. I find being in the company of hundreds of other people, for a full weekend, quite a strain. At the end of the day, no matter how tired I am, I absolutely have to spend half an hour or so unwinding with my book, otherwise my head’s buzzing and I can’t sleep.
For a long time I’ve thought I may actually be addicted to reading. You can take anything I own – the tea bags, the wine, the biscuits – but GET AWAY FROM MY BOOK. And STAY AWAY FROM MY BOOK. (Yes, it’s that bad :) )
So, I was interested to hear what author Nikki Logan had to say in one of our sessions, about the chemistry of reading. Nikki is the president of Romance Writers of Australia. She was a great speaker, and I finally discovered that, yes, addiction to reading is an actual thing!
Here’s the science bit, written from my layman’s perspective. There are chemicals floating around in our brain that perform various different functions. Dopamine is a motivator chemical that helps endurance and focus; norepinephrine is released in response to stress, and makes our hearts beat faster and our palms sweaty; serotonin is the feel good chemical; and oxytocin/vasopressin are bonding chemicals for emotional connectedness (oxytocin levels are high in new mums, for example).
A combination of all these chemicals helps keep the brain aroused and focused. Too much arousal means we’re stressed or frightened. Too little means we’re bored. Nikki Logan suggested that people who love books are using reading to re-adjust their arousal levels up or down to the perfect level. This makes sense to me. I hate being bored, and the invention of the e-reader is a godsend. Now, wherever I am – on a broken down train, waiting at a bus stop, in the dentist’s waiting room – I can pull my e-reader out of my bag and have something to read.
I don’t just read when I’m bored, though. When I’m stressed, I find reading romances relaxing. The guaranteed happy ending provides a rush of dopamine and serotonin, and my arousal levels go down.
There’s no denying that a really good romantic ending provides an emotional rush. We’ve all experienced that ‘aah!’ feeling when a novel ends happily. Just before the happy ending, there’s usually a black moment. Something will happen that makes us feel anxious – will they, won’t they? How on earth is this going to end? Our moment of anxiety makes the dopamine rush all the stronger when it finally happens.
If you finish a novel with a feeling of satisfaction, you’ve had a successful dopamine experience. Serotonin is associated with compulsion/obsession, and this, in conjunction with dopamine, makes our bodies strive to repeat the experience – hence the addiction to reading. Reading that book gave us such a good feeling, we want to have more of the same. Not only that, the better or more rewarding a book, the more likely you are to buy the next in the series, or by the same author, whilst on a high.
Dopamine aids endurance and focus. How many times have you sat up late into the night to finish a gripping book, even though you need to get up early in the morning? And oxytocin – the bonding chemical – is released in the brain when we care for the characters in a well-written book. When I finish a good book I actually mourn the loss of my fictional friends. I didn’t know there was a name for this, but apparently it’s called a “book hangover”. I get those all the time, so my oxytocin levels must be pretty high!
Nikki Logan went on to describe the various ways authors can use this knowledge to feed their readers’ addictions. (So, now we’re dope peddlers – but in a good way :) ) What Nikki means is, by using our writers’ tools in the most effective way, we can ensure the chemicals in the reader’s brain are released in the optimum way to give them a great read and leave them wanting more of the same.
This is a brief synopsis of a fascinating talk. If you’re interested in finding out more, and in particular, in learning in more detail how writers can engage their readers’ emotions on the deepest level, Nikki has written a book on the subject called The Chemistry of Reading – Arousing Your Reader.
I thought this was a great session – and now I know why I crave reading!
How about you? Are you addicted to books, like me? And if so, is there one particular genre you want to read, or do you read just about anything? If you have any comments, I’d ove to hear from you!
14 thoughts on “Addiction to romance novels is a thing – and science proves it!”
I KNEW it wasn’t just me. I KNEW there was more to my cravings for Regency romances and romantic suspense. It’s funny, although I like to read just about anything, and I will read other types of books, I don’t get the same good feeling from them as I do from these two genres. Now I know why.
There are worse things I could be addicted to, though…
Exactly, Caitlyn – there are far worse addictions than a happy ending! And I, too, can read anything, but I generally far prefer it if all is resolved in a satisfying way, eg with a good detective novel. If I read a tragic or unhappy ending I’m less likely to read that author again.
Glad I’m not alone in this!
Ohhh, how fascinating. And it makes sense. I’m also addicted to books. Although reading them lately has been harder. But it’s slowly coming back. I use them too to relax or because I’m bored. It’s one of my escape chutes in life.
I love the idea of us writers being ‘drug dealers.’ LOL. I didn’t realise that the words ‘book hangover’ actually meant something. But that makes sense. I often slow myself down toward the end of a book, so I can savor it a wee bit longer. I often don’t read the last few pages for a day. Just so I can have that last wee bit at the end. LOL. And I like all my books to have happy endings. Can’t stand them otherwise. I always feel slightly robbed if I get to the end and they don’t. This is why I often read the ends first to check it’s all okay. Just skim the words, Ok, Jane, Bob and Humphrey are still mentioned. They’re still alive. Ok, I can ready it now. LOL.
I read all sorts of genres, but I love the romances and murder mysteries, which seem like complete opposites. I like the intrigue I think of the puzzle with a murder and also a love story too.
I hate it too when a good book ends and the delicious characters aren’t sitting in my living room or bedroom. I hate my OWN characters not being around very much. I’ve just back editing book 2 of my series and it’s like coming home after a long trip. I walk in the door and my whole body exhales with relief and comfort. Here they are. My beloved characters who I know so well, and who I miss badly when I’m away from them. :-)
They seem so real sometimes.
Mine get so real that I once thought, ‘Oh, I must tell Henry that.’
The thought came out of nowhere. Then I thought…bugger…Henry’s not real.
Very disappointing to be thumped back to earth from that one. LOL.
Great blog, thanks Helena. Fascinating stuff. I love books. My Gran used to buy me a book voucher every christmas and birthday. Best pressie ever!
Thanks and aloha Meg :-)
Hi Meg, my husband does exactly the same as you – slows down reading towards the end of a book he loves! This is where it’s good to write a series, so that readers can keep coming back to the characters they love time and again.
And I also get attached to my own characters, same as you! I find it hard to start writing the next book, because I don’t “know” the new characters as well as the book I’ve just finished writing. They’re not my friends yet :) Must be the oxytocin thing again.
So glad this post has struck a chord with book lovers. It seems anyone who loves books can relate to this.
Thanks for your great comment!
It was fascinating, Helena, and reassuring there’s a reason we crave fiction that makes us feel happy. I agree about the full-on aspect of such weekends – I like some time on my own too but it didn’t work that way, although I didn’t party late either. I’ve only just recovered from my extreme tiredness today.
Hi Ros, it was great to meet you at last at the conference. I came away with so many new faces and so many great ideas to explore. I feel for you in your tiredness! It was well worth while, though, and has given me a boost to my writing. Hope to see you again soon!
Agree with all you say, Helena. I force myself to speak to people, to work and have other interests but all I really want is PEACE AND QUIET to read my book!
Oh, how I agree with you, Kate! :)
Wow, this is really interesting! I think my addiction is to fantasy novels. I usually read a lot of different books at the same time (right now, I’m reading 6), and each are different genres or styles. After reading this, it seems to me that the book I choose to read any one night is to do with whatever chemical I need replenishing. Maybe that’s why I can never stick to one book, but go back and forth between different days.
Thanks for sharing this!
What an interesting comment, Mary-Jean. You must have a quick brain to juggle up to six different genres at once. I’m not sure I could do the same. I don’t even really like having two different books on the go of the same genre. But like you say, this way you have a book for every mood! Thanks very much for coming by, and for your great comment
Hey, Helena. Yes, I’m one of the book addicted. I loved the term “book hangover.” Especially when I was younger and read books in bigger chunks at a time, so I really got into them, I’d be depressed when I finished them. I missed the people and places. But this all makes sense now.
I don’t put off reading the ending, but I do insist that I get to read at least all of the last chapter(preferable 2) at one sitting. If I don’t think I’ve got the time to do it, I’ll hold off. And sometimes that leads to those especially late reading nights we’ve all experienced. Great post, I’ll be sharing. So glad you had a great time at conference. :)
Hi Marsha, I hadn’t thought of saving the entire last chapter to read in one go. What a great idea! There’s nothing worse than being broken off from reading with only the last two or three pages to go. You can tell the book addicts, as we all understand each other so well :) Thanks for your comment!