Reading a novel appears to produce quantifiable changes in brain activity, according to an Emory University study published this month in the journal Brain Connectivity.
“It seems plausible that if something as simple as a book can leave the impression that one’s life has been changed, then perhaps it is powerful enough to cause changes in brain function and structure,” says neuroscientist Gregory S. Berns, the lead author of the new study and the director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy.
Berns and his 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—studied 19 Emory University students for 17 consecutive days.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers took “resting state” baseline scans for several days. Next, participants read about 30 pages of a novel—the thriller Pompeii by Robert Harris—each evening for the next nine days, and scans were taken the next morning following the reading. Additional baseline scans were then taken for several more days.
According to Berns, “On the days after the reading, significant increases in connectivity” were discovered on hubs in the brain that are associated “with perspective taking and story comprehension, and the changes exhibited a timecourse that decayed rapidly after the completion of the novel.” Further, Berns says the scans also show “long-term changes in connectivity, which persisted for several days after the reading.”
“Consistent with theories of plot structure,” Berns adds, “the mean arousal ratings of the story rose consistently throughout the story and culminated with the climax—the eruption of the volcano and the destruction of Pompeii.”
Although Berns notes that “it remains an open question for further study as to how lasting these effects are,” his team confirms that the results suggest reading narrative stories definitely strengthens the language processing regions on our brains.