Feed your head: Reading a good book improves brain function

Most of us can remember reading a book that changed our lives. Whether it was a comforting childhood favorite, a college assignment that surprised or shocked us, or a novel that resonated at a particular stage in our adult lives, books clearly have the power to change our thinking and expand our points of view.

Taking it a step further, recent research from Emory University suggests that the act of reading a novel produces measurable changes in the brain itself, specifically, improvements in resting-state connectivity that can persist for days after reading.

“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,” said neuroscientist and lead author Gregory Berns in a recent interview with Emory University’s eScience Commons online newsletter.

The study was published last month in the journal Brain Connectivity. Emory students—twelve women and nine men—participated in the experiment, which was conducted over a 19-day period. The students read Pompeii, a novel by Robert Harris based on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy. For the first five days, participants came in each morning for a baseline scan of their brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device. Starting on the sixth day, they were asked to read a section of the novel each evening and come in the following morning for another fMRI scan. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state. On the mornings following the reading assignments, the participants showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area associated with receptivity for language, and in the central sulcus, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. “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.” The neural changes persisted not only in the morning after the reading but also for five days after participants completed the novel. “It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

This study may have implications for counselors and educators who work with developing readers; the benefits of focused reading time may extend to the brain itself, helping to improve a student’s “wiring” and therefore his or her receptivity to other learning.

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