I was fascinated by January 4th 2014 in the Science section of the British newspaper The Independent referencing research from Emory University, it revealed that reading a gripping novel can trigger measurable changes in brain function, lingering for as long as five days. The research found reading a compelling book may cause heightened connectivity and neurological changes in the brain, which registered in the left temporal cortex, an area associated with language reception and other important brain functions such as sensory and motor activity.
“The neural changes we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Professor Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and author of the study. “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.”
In the study described, students read Robert Harris’s 2003 thriller, Pompeii, chosen for its page-turning plot and strong narrative drive. MRI scans showed “neurological changes continuing for as long as five days after reading.” Professor Berns said, “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”
The article generated many comments in The Independent and a bit of controversy. Some people interpreted the findings as hinting that reading could “substitute” for actually engaging in physical activities, something the study does not imply.
For me, the study confirms what is intuitive for many of us: reading compelling novels causes mental and emotional arousal. This would, of course, involve the brain and its various functions—especially those involved with receptivity and the process of identifying with a protagonist.
How many times have we read novels where we fear for the protagonist or feel our pulses throb? No wonder the phrase “pulse-pounding” is used so often in describing suspense/thriller novels. Don’t we feel exhilarated when the protagonist brings order to chaos? Do not these feeling states in the reader imply identification with the protagonist? We share the same conflict or problem, we feel, see, and experience what he or she does. We care what happens in the protagonist’s imaginary world. Isn’t this true identification with the character?
These MRI findings confirm what many of us have always known: depending on the novel, reading can cause arousal, fear, hunger, revulsion, warmth, satisfaction, exhilaration, and a host of other mental and emotional states. Now, we see measurable physiological correlation—altered brain activity. Does this mean reading takes you to other worlds besides your own? Yes. Does reading promote brain activity and thus, brain health? I think so. Does it imply that mental decline in the elderly may be forestalled by reading? That may very well be the case.
The most provocative aspect of the study is the finding that heightened brain function—connectivity and language receptivity—lasts for days after one has stopped reading. Your brain on books is fired up.
One thing is clear: keep reading!