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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”