Here’s some news that will not surprise most writers, or readers, but which brings some good neurological data to back up their views against science-fixated skeptics: Reading novels can improve your mind. Physically, noticeably, and measurably. New research from Emory University, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” published in the journal Brain Connectivity (where it is available in full as a PDF) and made available via eScience Commons, has found that “actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.”

Pompeii – erupting into readers’ minds

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says Gregory S. Berns, Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory and leader of the research team that produced the study. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

The study used progressive functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of volunteers’ brains to observe the after-effects of reading passages from Robert Harris’s Pompeii – chosen, according to Berns, for its “strong narrative line” that “depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way.” The results showed persistent residual heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex and the central sulcus, areas of the brain associated respectively with language receptivity and movement. The actual duration of the effects is still open to question, but clearly covered at least five days. “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.”

Many of you may have already experienced the software side of this. I know that I have a tendency after reading a particularly well-written piece of work to find myself thinking, or at least sub-vocalizing, in that author’s words, or at least, his idiom. I’m sure that others have felt this too. It’s as if the verbal component of our mental activity can actually be rewritten for a time by particularly strong verbal input. And it’s interesting, and in a way reassuring, to find that the hardware (or wetware) works in a similar way. Or, perhaps, that there are actual physical residues of this internal experience.

This research might also help conclude some of those grating debates about the value of fiction versus factual writing. If imaginative participation in the physical events of a novel can actually boost the connectivity in an area of the mind associated with movement, it may directly be improving your powers of movement. Never mind the effect it could be having on your emotional capabilities, empathy, reasoning power, and other more entirely mental areas of activity.

Now go and read an improving book. Your mind – and body – will thank you for it.


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