What Novels Do to Your Brain
January 14, 2014
A study, conducted by Emory University and published in Brain Connectivity’s December issue, demonstrates that reading can alter brain activity in surprising ways. Scientists ran brain scans on twenty-one subjects over the span of three weeks during and after they read chapters from Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris. The experiment, led by Dr. Gregory Berns, director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, tried to see if reading a book created enough stimuli to form new neural connections. According to Berns, the goal was to “understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.” They scientists found that the primary sensory motor region of the brain as well as the left temporal cortex showed the most heightened activity. These areas are responsible for the concept known as grounded cognition, or a representation of the sensations in the body. The results, according to Bern, showed that “[e]ven though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that ‘shadow activity,’ almost like muscle memory… The neural changes found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. 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 participants, while first being scanned a number of times to determine their brain’s "resting state" were quizzed on chapter contents to be sure they had done the reading. During pre- and post-reading periods the subjects were not allowed to do anything but the brain scan. This presented a unique look into brain activity in relation to reading because scans were conducted while the subjects were not actively reading, thereby suggesting that the increased activity was a result of “leftover or ‘primed’ networks” still responding to the previous night’s reading.
The study was not without criticism. “Reading a novel induces connectivity changes in the brain… but so does everything else you did or are doing today,” said Noah Gray, editor of Nature. But Berns maintains “No other study has measured resting state connectivity in a group of individuals, every day, for three weeks. So, before this, we didn’t even know how stable these networks were.” While he believed that the parameters of the experiment showed that increased neural activity directly links to reading, he acknowledged that it could not be known for sure. He concluded “given all other things that happen to people each day, it was remarkable that we could detect anything that could be linked to consuming chapters from a novel.”