After reading a novel, actual changes linger in the brain, at least for a few days, report researchers.
Their findings, that reading a novel may cause changes in
resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist, appear in the
journal Brain 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 University’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to
understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”
Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading
stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes
involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them as
they are in the fMRI scanner.
This study focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative.
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.”
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.”
The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says,
since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the 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.”