Reading Can Change Your Brain's Responses

If you’ve ever read a story that changed your life, it may have changed your brain as well.

Researchers from Emory University have discovered that reading a novel can cause changes in the brain’s “resting-state connectivity.”

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

The investigators’ findings were published in the journal Brain Connectivity.

Previous research has begun to identify brain networks linked to the reading of short stories. But the Emory study broke new ground because it focused on the lasting neural effects of reading a narrative.

Twenty-one Emory undergraduates participated in the 19-day experiment. They all read the novel Pompeii, a thriller based on the real life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy.

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They read the sections at night and came in for an evaluation the next morning. The subjects then underwent a scan of their brain in a non-reading state.

They returned for yet another scan after finishing the entire assignment. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent brain scan in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

Researchers found that the results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following 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 says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

The scientists also  observed  heightened connectivity in a region of the brain known as the central sulcus. Neurons of this region are known to perform “grounded congition” – meaning that just thinking about an activity, such as running, can activate neurons associated with 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 says. “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.”

The neural changes persisted for five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “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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