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How reading a good book literally gets into our brain

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Reading changes the biology of the brain, researchers find.

Sitting down and reading a story or having one read to you changes the brain in ways that persists for days. Emory University scientists have discovered reading stories boosts connectivity in the brain.

How stories get into our brain?

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns who is the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy said in a press release: “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

We we hear or read a story, it actually changes our brain, Berns discovered.

Stories can help us define who we are, so we already know they have an affect on our lives. Berns and his study 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 neuroimaging studies (fMRI) to find brain changes that occur in a resting state that persisted for days among students who read the novel "Pompeii".

The study

For their research, the Emory team enrolled 21 students from the University who participated over a period of 19 consecutive days.

The book "Pompeii" was chosen because “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.”

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The students had fMRI scans performed in a resting state for the first five days.They were then assigned to read nine sections of the novel over a 9-day period, which was approximately thirty pages each.

After reading a section of the story in the evening, the students returned for another resting brain scan in the morning. They then had five more morning scans after they completed the novel.

The researchers found reading a story boosted connectivity in the language receptivity area of the brain - the left temporal cortex in the morning after the students read the novel.

“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.”

Another area that was found to have heightened connectivity was the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain.

“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.” For instance, when we read that someone is running, the part of the brain that is associated with running becomes activated.

The reactions to reading a novel were not immediate,nor were they temporary, Berns further explains. The persisted for five days after the students completed the novel and were evident the morning after.

Bern said there are still questions about how long brain changes endure after reading a novel. The study, published in the journal "Brain Connectivity" suggests reading a good story changes the brain in ways we never knew by improving connectivity - at least for several days.

Image credit: Pixabay