04 January 2014

The Brain effects of a good novel

Image Credit: Thinkstock

A great novel can whisk you away to a distant land or period far back in time, and a new study in the journal Brain Connectivity has found evidence that these novels can actually cause a physiological change in the brain that lasts for days.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” study author Gregory Berns, director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

While previous research has looked at images of the brain while a subject is reading a story, the new study tried to see the lingering effects of reading a story.

In the study, Emory University researchers recruited 21 undergraduate students who were all asked to read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller set around the historical eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns said. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

“It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns added. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days of the study, volunteers underwent a base-line functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan of their brains in a resting state. They were then assigned nine sections of the novel to read over a nine-day period. Participants were supposed to read one section in the evening and come into the lab setting the following morning.

After quizzing the participants to validate that they had actually read the assigned section, the researchers conducted an fMRI scan on participants’ brains in a non-reading, resting state. After finishing the novel, the participants returned for daily fMRI scans over five more mornings.

The study team found evidence of elevated connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain affiliated with language, on the mornings after the reading assignments.

“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns said. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Elevated levels of connectivity were also seen in the central sulcus, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. This region has been linked with making modeling sensations in the body, an occurrence known as grounded cognition. For example, thinking about running can activate the neurons related to the physical act of running.

“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,” Berns said. “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.”

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” he added. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”


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