“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” said neuroscientist Gregory Berns, Ph.D., lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy.
“We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”
Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, with subjects actually reading the stories as they are in the fMRI scanner.
The Emory study focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. For the experiment, 21 Emory undergraduates were asked to read the Robert Harris thriller, “Pompeii.”
The novel, based on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy, was chosen due to its strong narrative and page-turning plot, according to Berns.
“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” he said. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.
“It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns continued. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”
For the first five days, the students came in each morning for a baseline fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning.
After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the students underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.
The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments, according to the researcher.
“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns said. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”
Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain, he reported. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.
“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns said.
“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.”
The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, he noted, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.
“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns said. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”
The study was published in the journal Brain Connectivity.
Source: Emory University