Reading novels stimulates the brain more than you think

Imagine this scene: in the evening, on getting home after a day at work, you settle down comfortably on your couch and forget all the problems of the day by starting a new novel. Straight away, you get lost in the story; you imagine the scenes and situations, and while you are reading, you become somebody else, the narrator of the story.

The expression “put yourself in somebody else’s boots”, frequently used when reading a novel, could be more real than you might think. Indeed, according to a study carried out by Prof. Berns, the brain activity observed while the person is reading a novel continues for several days afterwards, even when that person is no longer reading.

To study this phenomenon, researchers asked twelve students to undergo an MRI scan every morning for 19 days. After a control period of five days, they were asked to read 30 pages of the book “Pompeii” by Robert Harris every evening for the following nine days. The scan results obtained each morning on the following day revealed activity of the left temporal cortex associated with reading, as well as activity of the central sulcus, a region of the primary sensorimotor cortex that enables the creation of bodily sensations. For example, thinking about running activates the neurons involved in the act of running, even though the body is totally still. These changes continued the day after each reading session, and what is even more surprising, they lasted for the last five days of the experiment, even though the students were no longer reading.

Since the book used for the experiment was not the participants’ choice, Prof. Berns concluded that reading novels that we are enthusiastic about could have significant and lasting effects on our brain.
Source: Berns et al. (2013). Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity, 2013, 3(6): 590-600, doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

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