It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, for many a time to seek rest, relaxation and a good book. The good news is that finding the time to sit and read could actually result in positive physical changes to our brains.
A recent study indicated that reading a novel caused long-lasting alterations in the resting-state connectivity of the brain.
“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” commented neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”
The project monitored the brain reactions of twenty-one students over nineteen consecutive days as they each read the same novel, Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris based on the 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.”
The book was chosen due to its absorbing storyline. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”
Unlike previous studies which have merely focused on the cognitive processes that are utilised when reading, this latest neurobiological research conducted by Berns and his co-authors Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula, professor of information systems and operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that allowed them to ascertain which brain networks were engaged when an individual read a story.
For the first five-day period of the study, the brain of each subject was scanned whilst they were in a resting state. For the following nine days, they were all required to read a 30 page section of the novel each evening, then had to return to be measured again every morning. The daily tests included a quiz to ensure they had read the book along with additional resting brain scans. After they had finished reading the novel, they underwent resting brain scans for a further five mornings.
The findings of the study, which were published in the journal Brain Connectivity, explained how the heightened connectivity was found in the left temporal cortex, on the mornings following the reading assignments. The left temporal cortex is an area of the brain generally associated with receptivity for language, but heightened connectivity was also noted in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain that recognizes sensations in a process called grounded cognition. This area responds to thoughts about activities as well as actions; for example, just thinking about running activates the same neurons as those associated with the physical act.
The heightened connectivity in the brain was relatively long-lasting, being retained like a memory for the five days following completion of the novel:
“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” said Berns. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”
“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,” explained 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.”
“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.”
So when you lie back on the beach with a page-turning novel, relax in the knowledge that while your body rests you are still exercising and improving the performance of your brain.
For a real brain workout, why not read Whitley Strieber’s latest novel "Alien Hunter"?