There's nothing like a good book to activate our imagination and our mind. In fact, some years ago neuroscientists appreciated that when we read words like "perfume" or "coffee", parts of the brain associated with perception of scents are activated, as if we were ourselves perceiving those smells.
So far, we had focused on monitoring brain activity during reading, we wanted to know what happens in our brains as we read. However, now a research conducted at Emory University has gone one step further and suggests that effects of reading in the brain are long term.
According to this research, reading a good novel is like receiving a gentle but powerful "massage", directly into the brain, the effects do not disappear immediately after reading it, but extend over time. In fact, reading activates different networks, depending on emotional and visual-spatial content.
Effects of a good novel does not disappear when you close the book
In this study have been analyzed changes occuring in the brain functions and structures as a result of reading a novel. Researchers recruited 21 students and followed them for 19 days. During the first five days the researchers scanned their brains just to have a starting point to compare to.
Over the next nine days the participants read 30 pages of a novel every night. The next morning, their brains were scanned. The next five days after finishing the novel, researchers tracked their brains by scanning.
The results revealed a high activity in the left temporal cortex, a brain area associated with receptive language. Increased connectivity was also appreciated, suggesting that people had "somatized" the semantics experience. That is, the brain readers mimicked the physical actions of the characters. In fact, the neurological changes observed respect to the physical sensations and motion systems suggest that reading a novel can really help to put the reader into the role of the protagonist.
In addition, the most interesting thing was that these changes persisted five days after completing the novel, which indicates that the effects of reading don’t stop when we close the book.
The novel activates default neural networks
Another study, conducted by researchers at Harvard University, also revealed that a good novel stimulates what is known as "Default Network", a network of neurons that is activated when mind is at rest.
In this case, participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging, to see which brain areas were activated in relation to certain tasks, as they read parts of novels, biographies, magazines and self-help books.
So far it was observed that, depending on the type of reading, only few parts of that network are activated. For example, novel was the reading which caused the greater activation, and within it, the sections describing people and thoughts activated the medial prefrontal cortex, in the frontal area of the brain. On the other hand, contents describing a physical content stimulated the activity in the medium temporal lobes and the anterior medial temporal gyrus.
Functions of the different areas of the brain involved in reading
The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain which developed the most along evolution, compared to other animal species. Therefore, it is primarily responsible for higher cognitive functions, such as abstract thinking, the ability to predict the consequences of an act in the future, the possibility of distinguishing between good and evil and the ability to make decisions.
The temporal lobes contain important memory structures, such as the hippocampus, or the perception and processing of emotional content of stimuli, such as the amygdala.
During the reading, these brain areas are the neurobiological basis that allows us to understand the narrative. Thanks to these brain areas we can understand not only words but the social relationships established between the characters, we can perceive feelings and, of course, put ourselves in their place and be empathetic or assume their thinking. It is what is known as "Theory of Mind".
In fact, a good novel is like a master key for understanding the human mind and reveal the aspects that have emotional resonance on us. This is because we are able to attribute meaning to the behavior of others, and therefore also to the characters in a novel. This ability is known as "Theory of Mind" and if we hadn’t it, we couldn’t enjoy a novel as we would be unable to put ourselves in the role of the protagonists.
A good novel increases empathy
According to another study, this one conducted at the University of Princeton, reading a novel for a week increases significantly our empathy, but only if we’ve been able to get into the skin of the characters, understand their ideas and experience their emotions.
Anyway, this is not an unexpected result since previous research had confirmed that fiction is a powerful brain stimulation that allows us to experience other worlds, people and different mental states. It allows us live other lives.
A study conducted at the New School for Social Research in New York, has gone a step further, showing that empathy only increases when we read a literary fiction, not entertainment stories.
The researchers explain that when we read a novel we turn our interpretive resources to deduce the feelings and thoughts of the characters, we must activate the Theory of Mind. Entertainment stories, such as those we can read in the tabloids or the classic romance novels, paint a coherent world where the characters are very predictable, so are rather a confirmation of our expectations and do not promote the reasoning process.
What lessons can we draw from all these studies?
1. We should devote more time to reading as it is a very beneficial activity for our brain
2. That a good novel doesn’t mean wasting time, on the contrary, it helps us develop different brain functions
3. We should be more careful chosing our readings as there are "empty readings" that don’t give us anything
Tamir, D. et. Al. (2015) Reading fiction and reading minds: The role of simulation in the default network. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance.
Berns, G. S. et. Al. (2013) Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity; 3(6): 590-600.
Comer, D. et. Al. (2013) Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science; 342(6156): 377-380.
Abraham; A. et. Al. (2009) Reality = Relevance? Insights from Spontaneous Modulations of the Brain's Default Network when Telling Apart Reality from Fiction. PlosOne.
A good novel "cuddles" our neuronsJennifer Delgado