Combining neuroscience and the humanities, a new study has looked at the effects reading a novel can have on the brain.
Neuroscientist Gregory Burns, lead author and director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy says, “stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person. We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”
The researchers recruited 21 college students from Emory, who were asked to read the thriller “Pompeii” written by Robert Harris in 2003. The novel is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.
Says Berns, “it was important to us that the book have a strong narrative line,” so that the students would read a book with an interesting plot.

For 5 days the participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, while they were in a resting state.

During this timeframe they also read the novel, specifically in the evening, then returning to the research lab each morning.

On the mornings after the reading sessions, the researchers noticed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex of the brain, which is an area linked to receptivity for language.

Berns says that this heightened connectivity remained, even though the students were not reading while being scanned. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory,” he says.

The investigators also noticed heightened connectivity in an area of the brain called the central sulcus. This is a main sensory motor region of the brain, which is associated with making representations of sensation for the body. An example of it’s use is when we think about running, we can activate neurons in the brain that are associated with the actual physical motion of running.

Adds Burns, “we already know that good stories can put you in someone’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

While the adventure novel “Pompeii” was selected by the research team, is it possible that the kind of books you enjoy reading have a longer-lasting effect on your brain?     Medical News Today    12/28/13

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