Monday, 20 October 2014
Reading Novels Increases Connectivity of Areas in the Brain
Immersing yourself in reading a good novel is an excellent way to take a break from the stresses of daily life. By seeing things from the protagonists’ point of view while you are reading those few hundred pages, not only do you feel as if you have access to another world, but you may also continue to have this feeling for some time, or even for your entire life, if the book has really made an impression on you.
The neurobiological bases of this phenomenon would appear to have been discovered in a study that Gregory S. Berns and his colleagues published in the journal Brain Connectivity in Fall 2013. The subjects in this study were 21 young adults. In the first phase of the study, the subjects received resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans for five consecutive days. The researchers then used these scans to develop a general diagram of the connectivity of each subject’s brain.
For the next nine days, every evening each subject had to read about 30 pages of the novel Pompeii, by Robert Harris, a captivating fictional story based on the actual history of the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in Italy in the year 79. The following morning, the resting-state fMRI scans were repeated, so that the researchers could identify any changes in the subjects’ brain connectivity. Lastly, when the nine days were over and the subjects had finished reading the novel, they received resting-state fMRI scans for another five consecutive days.
The changes that Berns and his colleague observed included an increase in the connectivity of the major communication hubs of the left angular/supramarginal gyri and the right posterior temporal gyri. These areas of the brain had previously been associated with taking other people’s perspectives and understanding stories, so an increase in the connectivity of these areas after reading a novel seems entirely consistent with these functions.
But the researchers also found that these changes diminished rapidly over the five days after the subjects had finished reading the novel. That was not the case, however, for another increase in connectivity that they had observed, in the somatosensory cortex, in both the left and the right hemispheres. This area of the brain constructs representations of our bodily sensations, which seem to have a far longer duration, suggesting a potential mechanism for what is known as “embodied semantics”.
This idea dates back to the publication of the book Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in which the authors showed, first of all, that our everyday language is full of metaphors (for example, to have a hard row to hoe, or to demolish an argument), and second, that our understanding of these metaphors is rooted in our bodily sensorimotor experiences.
Before Berns’s study, we knew from personal experience that a good novel lets us put ourselves in the characters’ skins. Now we see that this metaphorical expression can almost be taken literally, both with regard to the phenomenon that it describes and even to the brain mechanisms that let us understand the metaphor itself.