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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.”

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Rebecca Beris

Rebecca is a wellness and lifestyle writer at Lifehack.

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Last Updated on November 11, 2019

How to Improve Memory and Boost Your Brainpower

How to Improve Memory and Boost Your Brainpower

Have you ever noticed that some people are able to effortlessly remember even the most mundane details and quickly comprehend new things? Well, you can too!

To unlock the full potential of your brain, you need to keep it active and acute. Wasting time on your couch watching mindless television shows or scrolling through facebook is not going to help.

Besides getting out flashcards, what can you do to help remember things better and learn new things more quickly? Check out these 10 effective ways on how to improve memory:

1. Exercise and Get Your Body Moving

Exercising doesn’t just exercise the body, it also helps to exercise your brain. Obesity and the myriad of diseases that eventually set in as a result of being overweight can cause serious harm to the brain.

Furthermore, without regular exercise, plaque starts to build up in your arteries, and your blood vessels begin to lose the ability to effectively pump blood. Plaque buildup leads to heart attacks and it also reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients that your blood carries to your brain. When the nutrients don’t make it there, the brain’s ability to function is compromised.

To prevent this from happening, make sure you get moving every day. Even if it’s just a brisk walk, it’ll help you maintain and increase your mental acuity. Brisk walking, swimming and dancing are all excellent activities. Take a look at these 5 Ways to Find Time for Exercise.

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2. Eliminate Stressors and Seek Help If You’re Depressed

Anything that causes you major stress, like anger or anxiety, will in time begin to eat away the parts of your brain that are responsible for memory. Amongst the most brain-damaging stressors is depression, which is actually often misdiagnosed a a memory problem since one of its primary symptoms is the inability to concentrate.

If you can’t concentrate, then you might feel like you are constantly forgetting things. Depression increases the levels of cortisol in your bloodstream which elevates the cortisol levels in the brain. Doctors have found that increased cortisol diminishes certain areas of the brain, especially the hippocampus which is where short-term memories are stored.

Prolonged depression can thus destroy your brain’s ability to remember anything new. Seek professional help to combat your depression – your brain will thank you.

3. Get a Good Night’s Sleep and Take Naps

Getting a consistent 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night will increase your memory. During sleep, the brain firms up memories of recently acquired information.

Getting enough sleep will help you get through the full spectrum of nocturnal cycles that are essential to optimal brain and body functioning during the waking hours. Taking a nap throughout the day, especially after learning something new, can also help you to retain those memories as well as recharge your brain and keep it sharper longer.

4. Feed Your Brain

Fifty to sixty percent of the brain’s overall weight is pure fat, which is used to insulate its billions of nerve cells. The better insulated a cell is, the faster it can send messages and the quicker you will be thinking.

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This is precisely why parents are advised to feed their young children whole milk and to restrict dieting – their brains’ need fat to grow and work properly. Skimping on fats can be devastating even to the adult brain.

Thus, eating foods that contain a healthy mix of fats is vital for long-term memory. Some excellent food choices include fish (especially anchovies, mackerel and wild salmon) and dark leafy green vegetables. Here’re more brain food choices: 12 Foods that Can Improve Your Brain Power

Deep-fried foods obviously contain fat but their lack of nutritional value is not going to help your brain or your body, so think healthy foods and fats.

5. Eat Breakfast and Make Sure It Includes an Egg

According to Larry McCleary, M.D., author of  The Brain Trust Program, an egg is the ideal breakfast. Eggs contain B vitamins which help nerve cells to burn glucose, antioxidants that protect neurons against damage; and omega-3 fatty acids that keep nerve cells firing at optimal speed.

Other foods to add to your breakfast include fruits, veggies and lean proteins. Avoid trans fats and high fructose corn syrup. Trans fats diminish the brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other and HFCS can actually shrink the brain by damaging cells.

Having a healthy breakfast in the morning has been shown to improve performance throughout the day. If you’re too busy to have a healthy breakfast, this maybe just right for you: 33 Quick And Healthy Breakfasts For Busy Mornings

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6. Write it Down

If there’s something you want to remember, writing it down can help.

It may sound like a no-brainer, but do you really know why? Writing it down creates oxygenated blood flow to areas of your brain that a responsible for your memories and literally exercises those parts of it. Here’s How Writing Things Down Can Change Your Life.

You can start a journal, write yourself emails or even start keeping a blog – all of these activities will help to improve your capacity to remember and memorize information.

7. Listen to Music

Research shows that certain types of music are very helpful in recalling memories. Information that is learned while listening to a particular song or collection can often be recalled by thinking of the song or “playing” it mentally. Songs and music can serve as cues for pulling up particular memories.

8. Visual Concepts

In order to remember things, many people need to visualize the information they are studying.

Pay attention to photographers, charts and other graphics that might appear in your textbook; or if you’re not studying a book, try to pull up a mental image of what it is you are trying to remember. It might also help to draw your own charts or figures, or utilize colors and highlighters to group related ideas in your notes.

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Here, you can learn How to Become a Person Who Can Visualize Results.

9. Teach Someone Else

Reading material out loud has been shown to significantly improve memory of the material. Expanding further upon this idea is the fact that psychologists and educators have found that by having students teach new concepts to others, it helps to enhance understanding and recall.

Teach new concepts and information to a friend or study partner, and you’ll find you remember the information a lot better.

10. Do Crossword Puzzles, Read or Play Cards

Studies have shown that doing crossword puzzles, read or play cards on a daily basis not only keep your brain active but also help to delay memory loss, especially in those who develop dementia.

So pick up the daily newspaper and work on that crossword puzzle, read a book or enjoy a game of solitaire.

Pick one to two of these tips first and start applying them to your everyday life. Very soon you’ll find yourself having better memories and a clearer head!

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Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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