Reading novels has the potential to change our minds—how we think and feel about the world—and as a corollary to these changes we might expect to see differences in how our brain functions as well. An innovative study Dr. Gregory Berns (Emory) and colleagues investigated the influence of reading a novel on one aspect of brain function known as functional connectivity. Functional connectivity analyses examine how activity in one brain region correlates with activity in other regions. For 5 days, 19 participants lay in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner that measured their brain activity as they lay quietly and did not perform any task. These initial 5 days of scanning constituted a baseline measurement. They were then assigned to read Pompeii: A novel, by Robert Harris, over the course of 9 days. After reading the previous night, each morning they would complete a short quiz on what they had read, rated how arousing that section of the text was, then they were scanned using the MRI scanner as before. After completing the novel, participants were scanned for an additional 5 days to measure the long-term influence of having read the novel. The analyses identified a number of brain networks that got stronger (i.e., the different regions became more closely associated) during the reading period. They also uncovered a network of brain regions that became more robust over the reading period but also appeared to persist after the participants had finished reading. Although this network got weaker over time after the reading period, the correlations between the brain regions in this network were still stronger than those observed prior to the reading period. What it is that these networks represent by way of mental processes is open to debate and interpretation, but the authors hypothesize that the networks associated with reading might be related to understanding mental states, language comprehension, and embodied cognition (i.e., changes in motor and sensory regions of the brain as a result of imagining experiences). There are, however, alternative interpretations possible. This study and its results highlight how the brain often operates as a network of collaborating (or, at least, co-activating) brain regions and how reading can influence the associations between brain regions even days after one has finished reading.
Berns, G. S., Blaine, K., Prietula, M. J., & Pye, B. E. (in press). Short- and long-term effects of a novel on connectivity in the brain. Brain Connectivity.
* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile).
Two questions immediately come to mind.
1. What does this increased connectivity mean in day-to-day life? Will reading a novel about kittens at play, make us kinder to kittens?
2. If reading has this effect, what does the far more intense experience of playing games such as Angry Birds do to our brains connectivity?
If researchers need a book to read to study #1, they might try one I wrote: My Nights with Leukemia. It's about my experience caring for children with cancer. Cancer rates in children are fortunately quite low, so most people have no personal experience in that area. Reading the book should have a major impact on their thinking though, make what is changing quite clear.
--Michael W. Perry
These are excellent questions. You're entirely correct that simple behavioral paradigms are often a more straightforward way of getting to the questions most people are interested in (e.g., how fiction influences behavior). There have been a number of studies on how reading influences real-world attitudes and possibly behavior (e.g., narrative persuasion work by Melanie Green, Markus Appel, and others). Please send me an e-mail if you're interested in receiving some of these original studies, or you can look through past Research Bulletins for summaries. Your second question, of whether videogames are more immersive and therefore more impactful with respect to brain connectivity or behavior, is still very much an open question. There has been some very interesting work on how videogame use has a positive impact on spatial reasoning abilities (e.g., by Ian Spence at the University of Toronto and Lauren Sergio my colleague at York University).
I'd be interested to see a comparison of how brain functions changed after reading creative non-fiction, a math textbook, even poetry... compared to fiction. Or even genre fiction compared to literary fiction.
Yes, you bring up a great point. In this study, only a single book was read so we don't know whether the results generalize (or compare) to other book and other kinds of books. This is a common issue with studies on media. Ideally, you'd like to see more than one book used per category of interest in a study, so you can see if the results hold across different books for each genre.
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