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Reading A Novel Could Physically Change Your Brain (But What Does That Mean?)

Jan 5 2014, 6:01pm CST | by

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Reading A Novel Could Physically Change Your Brain (But What Does That Mean?)
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Reading A Novel Could Physically Change Your Brain (But What Does That Mean?)

It turns out that reading a novel can cause measurable changes in how connected portions of your brain are. That, at least, is a conclusion of a study performed at Emory University , which was published in the journal Brain Connectivity last month.

“Most people can identify books that have made great impressions on them and, subjectively, changed the way they think,” the authors wrote. So they aimed to find out whether that subjective view had any physical correlation in the brain.

They did that by taking 19 study participants and scanning their brains over the course of 19 days. For the first five days, their brains were scanned using fMRI to get a “resting state” of each participants brain. Over the 9 following days, each participant read approximately 1/9 of the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris, and their brains were scanned each day. Then for the next five days following reading, their brains were again scanned. During the five days before and after the experiment, the participants didn’t do anything except the brain scan. (An enlightening or boring 10 days? The study doesn’t say.)

The scans revealed that compared to the days where the participants didn’t read the novel (and presumably, no other novels), the researchers “identified three independent networks that had significant increases in connectivity.” Two of these networks involved brain “regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension.” Those two networks showed a decay in connectivity after the participants were done reading the novel.

The third network highlighted by the study showed connectivity persisted in the five days following the experiment – although whether it would persist further requires further study. This particular brain network may have been activated because, the researchers suggest, “reading a novel invokes neural activity that is associated with bodily sensations,” as this portion of the brain has also been shown to activate while people read metaphors involving the sense of touch.

So what does this actually mean? After all, as Nature editor Noah Gray snarked on Twitter : “Reading a novel induces connectivity changes in the brain … But so does everything else you did or are doing today.”

Well, one thing that the researchers suggest is that this portion of the brain is activated because “the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity.” On the other hand, the researchers note that this particular area of brain activity “might relate to oculomotor coordination and attention, for example, and have nothing to do with the content of the novel.”

It’s interesting that some of the brain changes correspond to changes previously observed in the reading of short stories and other materials. But the complicating factor here, of course, is that it’s just very difficult to set up controlled experiments to figure out what’s going on in the brain. For example, if you were to perform an fMRI of these same participants in, say, five years and saw that the changes in the third network were still there, would that mean that Pompeii had stuck with them as a book? Or just that they’ve read a lot of novels since then?

This is a prime example of both how much we know about neuroscience and how little. We know that reading changes the brain, in part (per Gray) because everything changes the brain. But are there changes to the brain specific to reading a book? What kind of changes are they? How long do they last? What is their significance? These questions are a lot harder to answer. But along the way, we might learn some interesting things.

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