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Reading Novels Can Change Our Brains, Study Says

Reading Novels Can Change Our Brains, Study Says

Did you ever notice how some of the smartest people you know are readers? They seem to be well-spoken, cultured, and eloquent. Not only that, but they also seem to have good imaginations to go with it. I have noticed this, and have always wondered if there was a connection between these traits and their hobby of reading.

Writing a novel can be a long, complicated, and daunting process.  On the other side of the coin as a reader, what does reading a novel with a story of highs and lows do to your brain? Do your brain connections stay flat and consistent? Or do they change? And if they do change, how does it affect you? And how long are they there for?

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Researchers performed an fMRI on the participants

Based on a study done by Emory University, research shows that reading novels can make changes to the brain. For this research, the researchers asked 21 students to read 1/9 part of the novel, Pompeii by Robert Harris each night for 9 consecutive days. For the 9 consecutive mornings following the nights of reading the novel, the researchers performed an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) on the participants in a resting state. The researchers did the fMRIs for the full 9 consecutive days, as well as on the 5 days preceding the start of the 9 days and the 5 days after it, which made it a total of 19 days of testing.

Increases in brain connectivity were observed

Interestingly, the morning fMRIs showed increases in brain connectivity. These connections increased significantly on story days, with some of the highest arousal levels of brain activity happening during the climaxes of the story. Some of these brain connections stayed on with the reader as exhibited by the 5 days of fMRIs right after the participants finished reading the novel, and some disappeared after they have finished reading the novel. The short-term changes originated close to the left angular gylus and the long-term changes in the somatosensory cortex. The researchers interpreted the short-term changes originating from the left angular gylus of the brain to be related to perspective taking and story comprehension, which suggests that reading stories may strengthen the language processing regions of the brain.

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On the other hand, they have interpreted the long-term changes to be connected to embodied semantics, which happens when our brain provides motor representations to words. An example would be how thinking of “walking” provides you with the same brain activity as you would have when you are actually physically walking.

How it works

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    This second set of results makes sense because I remember that when I was a young girl reading young adult novels, I always felt like I was one of the characters. I felt like I was physically moving along with them throughout the story, even if I was only reading the words in a book. After reading the novel, that heightened movement in my brain probably stayed and provided me with more brain action because I felt like I was able to transfer this increased brain activity to other activities in my daily life. I felt like I became more imaginative and creative. Just how valid my experience was, I can’t tell. But it seems to agree with what the researchers found out.

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    The Conclusion

    Ultimately, the results of the research suggested that yes, reading novels changes your brain. The researchers were, however, unsure of how long these effects last. If you don’t like to read novels, maybe the results of this research can encourage you to start reading.

    Novels do transport you to another world you have never been to, broadens your imagination, provides entertainment and makes a good topic for a conversation.  And if you do already love reading, keep reading. Like they say, there is nothing better than reading a good book.

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    Sarah Bonander

    Writer, Human Resources Professional

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    Last Updated on April 7, 2020

    4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset

    4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset

    How many opportunities have you missed because of a bad mood or being stuck in feelings of frustration?

    I know I’ve certainly missed a lot. In fact, I can recall an exact time when I missed a great deal of opportunity. I was at a party filled with highly influential people. However, my girlfriend and I had just gotten into an argument because of my irrational expectations of how she would behave, and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I didn’t have any desire to talk to anyone or be open to interesting conversations. All I could think about was myself and my anger and frustration. I was caught up in this story; I was telling myself that I needed to be angry and I needed to show it. I can only imagine the opportunities I missed because I wasn’t flexible in my thinking.

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    The mindset you need, then, is one of flexibility and not rigidity. You must be able to go with the flow of events without being disappointed by your expectations. This open-minded approach is a necessity if you want to be happy and experience rapid personal growth. These four ways below will tell you how to develop a flexible mindset.

    1. See the feeling for what it is and accept it.

    When you begin to notice yourself feeling frustration and anger, use that as a trigger to pause for a moment. See the feeling and sit with it. Don’t act, but stop and accept that you’re feeling this way. Understand that this feeling is just that ‒ a feeling. It’s not who you are, but merely a passing cloud in a sky full of clouds holding different feelings.

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    2. Know that it’s OK to feel frustration and rigidity.

    It happens to everyone. No one is perfect or immune to anger. It’s OK to feel this way. Give the feeling some space and compassion. It’s impossible to feel thankful and angry at the same time. By giving this feeling ‘some love’, you’re improving your mood and making it easier to come back to happiness. If you think of the feeling as a cloud, imagine opening up the sky and giving it the room to float away.

    3. Notice what’s around you ― and breathe.

    The key is to be in the moment. Too often we’re caught up in life and it whizzes by without us ever realizing it. Sit back, relax, and focus on your breathe for a bit. Feel it go in your nose, down your throat, into your stomach, and back out again. If you imagine your frustration as a thermometer, the more frustrated you are, the more it fills up. You need to give yourself time to allow it to cool off and that level to go down. Then, look around and be thankful for everything you see.

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    4. Realize it’s OK to say, “I don’t know”.

    It’s OK to not know how things should be. It’s also OK to not know how things are now. Not knowing sets you up to be able to freely investigate. Why are things this way? What series of events took place that caused this feeling? What unreasonable expectations did I have that put me in this place? Once you understand, you can fully let go and change your course going forward.

    I hope these four steps help you let go of your rigid mindset and develop the flexibility to be happy and to experience personal growth. This shift in mindset will stop life from giving you lemons to make lemonade and start giving you whatever you desire. Just remember to pause, breathe, embrace, let go, and move on.

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