January 05, 2014
Effects On Brain From Novel Reading

Emory University researchers studied the lingering effects of reading the novel Pompeii by doing fMRI brain scans on participants each morning after they had read part of the book. Novel reading caused the brain to function differently the next morning and for days afterward.

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI 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 were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain 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.

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.”

I feel a lasting altered mental state after reading fiction. So I am not surprised by this result. What I'd like to know: can one tune the performance of one's brain by reading a certain type of material to temporarily make it function better for some purpose? Do you do any reading as sort of exercise before some demanding activity? I can see reading some psychological suspense novel to up your game to help you deal with psychologically trying people. Or perhaps read something after an ordeal to let go of the lingering effects of an especially trying verbal exchange.

What I'd like to see: a comparative brain scan study of the effects of novel reading, TV show watching, and movie watching. Does reading a novel cause longer lasting effects?

People who read this novel had more connectivity in the primary sensory motor region of the brain. All that imaginary walking and running exercised the brain.

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the 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.”

I want imaginary running to send a message to my muscles that make them develop as if they had been running.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 January 05 07:21 PM 

Russ in TX said at January 6, 2014 6:34 AM:

I'd also like to see the difference between television which was episodic, and tv shows which followed a long story arc. I routinely put on the latter as background filler when I'm doing craft work, but generally can't stand the former, as they appear to work my mind differently.

Nick G said at January 6, 2014 6:52 AM:

“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 looks to me like scientists *still* haven't gotten over Cartesian mind/body duality. Why should it be a surprise to see alterations in brain activity, when the brain is working?? Why would they expect that a brain doing something in a "figurative sense" wouldn't also be doing something biologically?

This is one of many articles in which scientists say "gosh, we thought this activity was in the mind, but brain imaging shows it's in the body! Well, duh: the mind and the body are the same, right??

Mark said at January 6, 2014 10:54 AM:

Real running is not that hard if your joints can take it.

jp straley said at January 7, 2014 5:58 AM:

Every writer knows that there are huge limits to prose. Most importantly, it's linear, one word at a time. Further, readers won't read reams and reams of description. So you have to move the story along, and supply clues for the reader to interpret. If this is done well, then the reader will erect a mental construct of the setting, the people, and everything else. This mental construct is very interactive and requires quite a bit of cognitive work. Just so, some books are simple (take a look at books designed for Young Adults...or any Elmore Leonard) and some require much more of the reader.

Compare this to movies or video. Characters can be almost caricatures because the story is carried as much by the visual presentation as by character and dialogue. In many simple videos or movies, the visual portion does nearly all the work in terms of fully formed detail.

With such a fully formed presentation the viewer can sit back and let a fully formed story take place...with very little cognitive interaction. In a word, it's all very passive compared to reading a novel.

Wolf-Dog said at January 8, 2014 4:10 PM:

Anything we do seems to influence not only the electrochemical structure of the brain, but even the gene expression in general. This article says that the memories of traumatic experiences of mice are transmitted even to the second generation offspring.


Separately, the book "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge, M.D. says that various mental exercises actually physically change not only the wiring of the brain cells, but even the growth of brain cells.

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