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Science Says Reading Fiction Can Boost A Variety Of Brain Functions

Science Says Reading Fiction Can Boost A Variety Of Brain Functions

Many of you probably like staying inside on a cold winters day curled up on your bed with a good fiction book. It is easy to get swept up in the story and be ‘taken away’ to a new place filled with exciting people. But how many of you know that this act of reading may in fact be benefiting you in many different ways and on a variety of levels?

The good feeling and changes in your outlook that a book can elicit.

Gregory Berns, the neuroscientist and leading author of a recent study conducted by Emory University and published in the journal Brain Connectivity, says “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person”. He continues “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

You have probably experienced that good feeling after you have finished reading a book and may have that special book that changed your outlook on life. Now Berns’ study suggests that there is a biological reason for these feelings and experiences.

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Berns’ study found that reading a novel may cause changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain and that these changes in the brain can actually persist for at least a few days after the novel has been finished.

Theory of mind (ToM)

In a study conducted by Pew there were various reasons people gave to support their love of reading. There were people who spoke about personal enrichment and used expressions such as “being able to experience so many times, places, and events.” Others spoke about the enjoyment they experienced when living a “life of the mind”. These ideas refer to the experience of being able to put oneself in the place of the protagonist. 

“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,” says Berns.

One of the advantages of being able to ‘transcend’ one’s self and experience and see the world from the protagonist’s perspective is that it improves theory of mind. Theory of the mind (ToM) is the capacity to attribute mental states such as desires, beliefs, intents and knowledge not only to oneself but also to others so that you can understand perspectives that differ from your own.

Gregory Berns’ study process and findings

The study looked at the lasting neural effects of reading a narrative. There were 21 participants in the study.

For the first five days of the study the subjects were given a base-line fMRI scan of the brains in resting state. The scans were taken in the morning. The participants were then given nine sections of the same novel to read over a nine-day time frame. They were to read the 30 pages in the evening. They were then scanned in the morning every day for nine days. Following this the subjects were then given five more scans, taken in resting states, over a period of five days.

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The results of Bern’s study showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex in the mornings following the reading assignments. The left temporal cortex is the area of the brain that is receptive to language. Berns says that this is almost like a muscle memory. The person’s imagination is ‘flexed’ just like a muscle is flexed when one undergoes a sporting activity.

The central sulcus of the brain; the primary sensory motor region of the brain, also showed heightened connectivity. Neurons found in this part of the brain are linked to making representations of sensations in the body. For example, if one thinks about walking, neurons linked to the physical act of walking can be activated.

Summation

Berns’s finding suggest that when you read a novel you may be putting yourself in the body of the protagonist. This ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is essential part of improving theory of mind.

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The effects of reading are also seen to be lasting, at least for a couple of days. This means that the positive feeling we get after reading a book and the effect a book can have on the way we see and approach life may be grounded in biological science.

Berns concluded, “At a minimum, we can say that reading stories—especially those with strong narrative arcs—reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains.”

More by this author

Rebecca Beris

Rebecca is a wellness and lifestyle writer at Lifehack.

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Last Updated on July 10, 2020

How to Take Control of Your Life with Better Boundaries

How to Take Control of Your Life with Better Boundaries

We all have them—those hurtful, frustrating, offensive, manipulative people in our lives. No matter how hard we try to surround ourselves with positive and kind people, there will always be those who will disrespect, insult, berate, and misuse you if we allow them to.

We may, for a variety of reasons, not be able to avoid them, but we can determine how we interact with them and how we allow them to interact with us.

So, how to take control of your life and stop being pushed around?

Learning to set clear firm boundaries with the people in our lives at work and in our personal lives is the best way to protect ourselves from the negative effects of this kind of behavior.

What Boundaries Are (And What They’re Not)

Boundaries are limits

—they are not threats or ultimatums. Boundaries inform or teach. They are not a form of punishment.

Boundaries are firm lines—determined by you—which cannot be crossed by those around you. They are guidelines for how you will allow others to treat you and what kind of behaviors you will expect.

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Healthy personal boundaries help protect you from physical or emotional pain. You may also need to set firm boundaries at work to ensure you and your time are not disrespected. Don’t allow others to take advantage of your kindness and generosity.

Clear boundaries communicate to others that you demand respect and consideration—that you are willing to stand up for yourself and that you will not be a doormat for anyone. They are a “no trespassing” sign that makes it very clear when a line has been crossed and that there will be consequences for doing so.

Boundaries are not set with the intention of changing other people. They may change how people interact with you, but they are more about enforcing your needs than attempting to change the general behavior and attitude of others.

How to Establish Boundaries and Take Control of Your Life

Here are some ways that you can establish boundaries and take control of your life.

1. Self-Awareness Comes First

Before you can establish boundaries with others, you first need to understand what your needs are.

You are entitled to respect. You have the right to protect yourself from inappropriate or offensive behavior. Setting boundaries is a way of honoring your needs.

To set appropriate boundaries, you need to be clear about what healthy behaviors look like—what healthy relationships look like.

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You first have to become more aware of your feelings and honest with yourself about your expectations and what you feel is appropriate behavior:

  • Where do you need to establish better boundaries?
  • When do you feel disrespected?
  • When do you feel violated, frustrated, or angered by the behavior of others?
  • In what situations do you feel you are being mistreated or taken advantage of?
  • When do you want to be alone?
  • How much space do you need?

You need to honor your own needs and boundaries before you can expect others to honor them. This allows you to take control of your life.

2. Clear Communication Is Essential

Inform others clearly and directly what your expectations are. It is essential to have clear communication if you want others to respect your boundaries. Explain in an honest and respectful tone what you find offensive or unacceptable.

Many people simply aren’t aware that they are behaving inappropriately. They may never have been taught proper manners or consideration for others.

3. Be Specific but Don’t Blame

Taking a blaming or punishing attitude automatically puts people on the defensive. People will not listen when they feel attacked. It’s part of human nature.

That said, you do not need to overexplain or defend yourself. Boundaries are not open to compromise.

Sample language:

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  • “You may not…yell or raise your voice to me…”
  • “I need…to be treated with respect…”
  • “It’s not okay when…you take things from my desk without asking…”
  • “I won’t…do your work…cover for you anymore…”
  • “It’s not acceptable when…you ridicule or insult me…”
  • “I am uncomfortable when…you use offensive language”
  • “I will no longer be able to…lend you money…”

Being able to communicate these without sounding accusatory is essential if you want others to respect your boundaries so you can take control of your life.

4. Consequences Are Often Necessary

Determine what the appropriate consequences will be when boundaries are crossed. If it’s appropriate, be clear about those consequences upfront when communicating those boundaries to others.

Follow through. People won’t respect your boundaries if you don’t enforce them.

Standing our ground and forcing consequences doesn’t come easily to us. We want to be nice. We want people to like us, but we shouldn’t have to trade our self-respect to gain friends or to achieve success.

We may be tempted to let minor disrespect slide to avoid conflict, but as the familiar saying goes, “if you give people an inch, they’ll take a mile.”

It’s much easier to address offensive or inappropriate behavior now than to wait until that behavior has gotten completely out of hand.

It’s also important to remember that positive reinforcement is even more powerful than negative consequences. When people do alter the way they treat you, acknowledge it. Let people know that you notice and appreciate their efforts.

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Final Thoughts

Respect is always a valid reason for setting a boundary. Don’t defend yourself or your needs. Boundaries are often necessary to protect your time, your space, and your feelings. And these are essential if you want to take control of your life.

Start with the easiest boundaries first. Setting boundaries is a skill that needs to be practiced. Enlist support from others if necessary. Inform people immediately when they have crossed the line.

Don’t wait. Communicate politely and directly. Be clear about the consequences and follow them through.

The better you become at setting your own boundaries, the better you become at recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others.

Remember that establishing boundaries is your right. You are entitled to respect. You can’t control how other people behave, but you do have control over the way you allow people to treat you.

Learning to set boundaries is not always easy, but with time, it will become more comfortable. You may eventually find that boundaries become automatic and you no longer need to consciously set them.

They will simply become a natural extension of your self-respect.

Featured photo credit: Thomas Kelley via unsplash.com

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