Reading may make longer-lasting changes to the brain than previously thought. Using the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), we’ve known for some time that reading different words results in the activation of corresponding areas of the brain. Reading words like, “Salty,” for example, light up areas of the brain associated with taste. So what happens to the brain when we read a novel? Quite a bit more, according to a research team at Emory University. But what does that mean in a practical sense and how does it differ from simply activating one’s imagination?
The 19-day “brain connectivity” study focused on how the brain’s function and structure changes over the course of reading a novel. While most research done on the intersection of reading and brain structure has been short-term (reading short stories during an fMRI), the researchers at Emory “sought to determine whether reading a novel causes measurable changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain and how long these changes persist.”
For the first five days, researchers gathered “baseline resting-state” data by analyzing the fMRIs of 21 undergraduates. The participants were then asked to read one-ninth of the novel Pompeii (Robert Harris, 2003) each day, for the following nine “Story days.” Interestingly, this particular novel was chosen “because it was based on true events but written as historical ﬁction.” The students then took comprehensive quizzes to confirm that they had actually read the material, each undergoing an fMRI the following morning. After completing the book on the ninth “story day,” the study switched to a “wash-out” period requiring the students to continue resting-state fMRIs for an additional five days.
Researchers found that the participants’ brain connectivity patterns at rest were altered by the reading experience in language function and perspective-taking regions of the brain, and in regions involved in controlling the body and processing touch. The observed increase in connectivity suggested that thought-about actions mirrors the connectivity that occurs during the actual actions; simply thinking about running can trigger the firing of neurons that fire during the physical act of running.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
“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,” said Gregory Berns, neuroscientist and leader of the study. “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.”
So What Does that Mean Exactly?
Critics of the study have been quick to point out that the brain is actively changing all the time, and the idea of a resting-state fMRI is a bit loose given that the brain is active even while sleeping. Additionally, there’s no comparison made against individuals doing activities for consecutive days other than reading a novel.
It does seem significant, though, to point out that regions of the participants’ brains were active during the story days as if they had been physically doing the action. “It remains an open question for further study as to how long-lasting these effects are, but our results suggest a potential mechanism by which reading stories not only strengthen language processing regions, but also affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimoter regions.”
In short, reading stories triggers brain activity associated with bodily sensations; a powerful statement in the context of brain injury, when caretakers are working to encourage the regeneration of neurons in damaged areas of the brain associated with language, movement, and memory. Moreover, if brain connectivity is heightened during other imaginative activities, which seems plausible, then merely reading stories to brain injury patients or walking them through meaningful memories could have equal benefit. The short study does leave us wanting more, but the results are nothing if not hopeful and come with exciting implications.
- Engaging in imaginative activities, like reading stories, triggers brain activity associated with bodily sensations; simply thinking about running can trigger the firing of neurons that fire during the physical act of running.
- According to the researchers, neural changes observed suggest that reading a novel transports the reader “into the body of the protagonist” by activating areas of the brain associated with psychical sensation and movement systems.
- Though the researchers agree that “It remains an open question for further study as to how long-lasting these effects are,” the implications are inspiring and suggest that it may be beneficial for individuals suffering from brain injury to engage in imaginative activities with the hope of reactivating language processing and sensorimoter regions in the brain.
Cover photo: Etsy