Read a Good Book

Read a good novel.

A good story may have a long-lasting effect on your brain’s biology. We all know how, when reading a good book, we become so involved with the characters and their plight that we are experiencing it right along with them. We cry when they’re hurt … or when they accomplish their goal, we laugh out loud at their foibles, our heartbeat speeds up and we can’t breathe when they’re in peril. We’re on the edge of our seat and get irritated if someone or something interrupts a particularly absorbing scene . We rush to finish one page so we can get onto the next.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a book’s lasting effect on your emotions. A really good book will stay with you for days.

Many people can point to a particular novel that they claim changed their lives. And all book lovers know that reading a novel can inspire and stimulate thinking. Now there’s scientific proof.

Emery University researches what happens in our brain when we read a good novel.

Read a Good Novel
Pompeii by Robert Harris

Neurobiological research by Emery University’s Center for Neuropolicy (Atlanta, GA) have detected possible biological traces related to this feeling. “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,” says Neuroscientist Gregory Berns. This study finds that when you read a good novel it actually causes changes in the biology of one’s brain. The Emory Study focused on lingering neural effects of reading a book. 21 Emory undergraduate students participated in the experiment over a period of 19 consecutive days. All the subjects read the same novel – Pompeii — a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris, based on the eruption of Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius in ancient times. It was selected because it is a real page-turner. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” says Berns. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

Berns says, “The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano. He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.” CLICK HERE to see the Book

The first five days of the study, the participants came in for a base-line functional magnetic resonance imaging – fMRI – scan of their brains in a resting state. Over the next nine days, they were to read a good novel. They were given nine sections of the book – approximately 30 pages each – per day, to be read at home at night. The following morning they were given a quiz to make sure they had completed the reading assignment, then they underwent an fMRI brain scan in a resting, non-reading state. After reading all nine sections of the novel, they returned the next five mornings to undergo more such scans.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex of the brain, which is associated with receptivity for language. Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not – a phenomenon known as “grounded cognition.” For example, thinking about running can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.” Reading affects muscle memory in the brain in much the same way that exercise does on the body.

Berns says it’s not known how long these neural changes may last. But the fact that they’re detectable over several days for an assigned novel suggests that one’s favorite novels may have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on one’s brain biology.

Read a good novel. In addition to being very pleasurable and enriching your life, it exercises your “memory muscle” and may even enhance your memory.

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