By Dennis Abrams
Last fall, we reported on a study that indicated that reading literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction or “serious” nonfiction) “leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” And now The Independent reports on a new study published in the journal Brain Connectivity, which shows that reading an interesting novel triggers measurable changes in the brain that remain for at least five days after the reading.
Medical News Today quotes neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, the lead author and director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy:
“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person. We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”
And indeed, the research found that “reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory.”
Changes were seen in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain that is associated with “receptivity for language, as well as the primary sensory motor region of the brain.”
According to the report, the neurons of this region of the brain are associated with “tricking the mind” into thinking that it is doing something that it’s not, “a phenomenon known as grounded cognition.” If, for example, you think about running, the neurons associated with the actual act of running are actually activated.
“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Professor Berns.
“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”
According to Medical News Today:
“To investigate the inner workings of the novel-reading mind, the researchers recruited 21 undergraduates from Emory, who were instructed to read a thriller written by Robert Harris in 2003, titled Pompeii.”
Based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy, Berns explains that the narrative “follows a [fictional] protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano.”
While the protagonist tries to save the woman he loves back in Pompeii, the volcano continues to erupt, and meanwhile others in the city do not recognize the signs, Berns says.
“It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line,” he explains, so that the study participants would read a book with an intriguing plot.
After performing fMRI scans, researchers found that reading a novel causes lasting effects in regions of the brain responsible for language receptivity and for making sensory representations of the body.
For 19 days in a row, the study participants were analyzed by the researchers. For the first 5 days, the investigators performed base-line functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on the students’ brains while they were in a resting state.
Then, over the course of 9 days, the students read specific portions of the novel until they completed it. Instructed to read each assigned part in the evening, the students came back to the researchers in the morning.
In true college undergraduate style, they had to take a quiz in order to prove they had completed the assigned reading, after which, they again underwent an fMRI scan during a non-reading, resting state.
After completion of the novel, the students then returned for 5 additional days, during which they again underwent scans while in a resting state.
On the mornings after the reading sessions, the researchers observed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, which is an area of the brain linked to receptivity for language.
Berns explains that this heightened connectivity remained, even though the students were not reading the book while they were being scanned.
“We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory,” he says.”
While acknowledging that the team remains uncertain as to just how long the changes last, Berns added that since they were observed while the subjects were reading a “randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”