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A good book can change your life ... and your brain

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January 5, 2014

Is reading a book like living the story? (Image: Shutterstock)

Is reading a book like living the story? (Image: Shutterstock)

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Stories, whether fact or fiction, are at the heart of human culture. A strong narrative can resonate with your personality and experiences, and help set a framework for your future. "That book changed my life" is a cherished maxim. So can a book change your brain too? A recent study led by Emory University's Gregory Berns has demonstrated that reading a novel produces physical changes in the brain similar to those that would result from living as one or more of the characters.

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 in the fMRI scanner. The Berns study, published in the journal Brain Connectivity, focused on changes in brain connectivity occurring between reading chapters of a novel, and the fading of those changes once the novel was finished.

"You live several lives while reading." William Styron.

Twenty-one undergraduate students volunteered as subjects in the experiment. For the first five days, the participants came in to the lab every morning to obtain a base-line functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measurement of their brain at rest. Then for the next nine days, they were assigned a section of a novel to read at night, returning the next morning to take a quiz covering the material in the latest section, and then taking a new fMRI scan. When the novel was finished, the participants returned to the lab each of the next five mornings for an fMRI scan to track the evolution of any changes observed during the experiment.

The novel chosen was Robert Harris' Pompeii. This historical thriller follows its protagonist through his arrival in Pompeii as the new "aquarius," or hydraulic engineer, to run the aqueduct for the area surrounding the Bay of Naples. When the flow of water suddenly stops, he suspects a blockage near its sources on Mount Vesuvius. Investigating, he becomes embroiled in a a fraudulent plan to cheat the Roman government of its water fees. Finding the proof, with the aid of a noblewoman, seems less important when the volcano decides to erupt. He rushes into Pompeii to rescue the noblewoman, and they both escape through the lower portions of the once again active aqueduct.

While prior studies suggest that connection to a story told in the first person may be more captivating (everything else being equal), the researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “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 ... We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

fMRI scans of a subject looking at faces and looking at houses (Photo: NIMH)

As we learn and experience, the connectome, or map of neural connections within our brain, changes. In the Emory experiment, two main classes of changes were seen. First, heightened connectivity was seen in the left temporal cortex, and area associated with understanding language. Remember that the students were not reading while the fMRI scans were being taken, which shows us that the brain remained "at alert" to continue this activity. This is called a "shadow activity."

Increased connectivity was also found in the central sulcus of the brain, which is located at the boundary between the motor and the sensory centers. The neurons in this area are not only activated when the body is active, but also when you think about being active. For example, thinking about running produces very similar changes in this region to those which occur when actually running.

The neural changes remained for the five days after the novel was complete. At this point the study stopped, leaving the duration of their persistence an open question at present.

“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 use of fMRI scans to study changes associated with experience offers a number of interesting possibilities. One of the more interesting to me is the possibility of increasing the strength of the effect using transcranial direct current stimulation or transcranial magnetic stimulation. It would be fascinating (or frightening) if the reading of a book could be transformed to a real-seeming experience in an internally visualized fantasy world.

Source: Emory University

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
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6 Comments

Nice job. I know this literature and you made it far more accessible without dummying it down.

Omen
6th January, 2014 @ 09:41 am PST

Great research. Be interesting to compare the effectiveness of neural changes between books, video, radio-although I suspect the advertising industry has done this research...

keep up the good articles!

David

ADVENTUREMUFFIN
6th January, 2014 @ 10:00 am PST

I doubt that either transcranial direct current stimulation or transcranial magnetic stimulation alone will manifest the fantasy world in as coherent a projection as desired, but coupled in some way with some testable amount of psychedelics, that might just get you there. What you want is some kind of induced waking-dream state where the imagination overrides reality, but the test subject is still able to read. Most readers are able to visualize as they read. I've noticed though that with practice you can increase the fidelity and coherency with conscious effort to do so.

Alternatively, and a project suggestion that I've submitted to IBM, is to have a Watson-like computer read the book and auto-generate a 3D movie from the perspective of the protagonist or any other major character in any particular scene. Then, it will not be an individual's imagination rendered but will be that of Watson, and anyone can don an Oculus Rift and peer around as the action unfolds.

kalqlate
6th January, 2014 @ 10:09 am PST

This is why it is so vital to choose wisely what you read and fill your mind with.

donwine
6th January, 2014 @ 09:06 pm PST

It's interesting to see the implications that this part of the brain may function to help us relate to other people, by "feeling" what they're feeling when they tell us something or even when we think they're feeling something.

I wonder if this part of the brain would activate differently (or at all under the same conditions), for the condition-formerly-known-as Asperger's Syndrome.

Dave Andrews
7th January, 2014 @ 07:42 pm PST

As an author I am fascinated: Can I rewire the brains of my readers? If my stories do this, what is my moral obligation? Of course, if all writers only produce pornography and violence, then we will live in a pornographic and violent society. But, then what shall I write? What duty do I owe?

Harold Johnson
17th January, 2014 @ 11:16 am PST
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