"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," says Gregory Berns. "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." (Credit: Ali Eminov/Flickr)

Does reading actually change the brain?

After reading a novel, actual changes linger in the brain, at least for a few days, report researchers.

Their findings, that reading a novel may cause changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist, appear in the journal Brain Connectivity.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory University’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 begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them as they are in the fMRI scanner.

The study focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. Twenty-one Emory undergraduates participated in the experiment, which was conducted over 19 consecutive days.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “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.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line 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 participants 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.

“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “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. 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 says. “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, Berns says, 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 says. “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.”

His co-authors include Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula, professor of information systems and operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Source: Emory University

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32 Comments

  1. David Michael Myers

    If the research on reading stories is true, then why not the same for watching dramatic, story-telling movies, plays, and videos? Maybe even musical ballads and other forms of communication. The content can be the same but delivery in slightly different media. It all comes in through the eyes unless you’re “reading” audio books.

  2. Dee

    David, I can tell you that there is a big difference in how we use our brain for reading verses being fed data through other senses. (ie: reading a novel, or listening to an Audio book of the same story.) I suspect that reading engages different parts of the brain when compared to listening. It would be an interesting study, not just to understand brain function, it could also have a positive effect on how we teach and learn.

  3. JoyfulC

    David, reading requires your brain to imagine in ways that watching a movie does not. All the scenery, all the details of sight and sound, all the continuity must be constructed by the reader.

    However, Dee, I must say that I listened to my first audiobooks earlier this year, and I found it to require the same type of mental imagining and constructing. The only difference is, the language comes in through your ears, rather than your eyes.

    I still prefer sight reading to audiobooks, for two reasons: 1) when you get distracted sight reading, you stop right away. With audiobooks, the reading continues on while you’re not listening. And with audiobooks, the quality of the reader can make a huge difference. Many male readers murder female characters. A good reader, though, is a delight to listen to!

  4. Shrimati

    How much consolidation occurs post any event is determined, partly at least, by which sense prevails the strongest in the individual – for visual people, words and pictures can leave a lasting impression, whereas for those with strong auditory sense, a concert will leave them humming and experiencing the concert for a long time and so on and so forth.
    But it is important to note that whilst there are some areas of the brain that will be active for long, other areas will also be contributing to make the primary experience strong…

  5. Godzilla

    David,
    Mirror Neurons are one way in which the brain retains or relates to memories based on watching movies, plays, and videos. I haven’t seen much research on it but it would be a good thing to study in comparison / contrast to reading.

  6. Linda

    How about someone like me? I have ADD. I like to read, but half of the book goes out the window, I don’t know remember half of what I read, I wonder what that MRI would read? The same or not? I must go back and read it over and over, and then when I’m forcing myself to do that, then my brain won’t acknowledge it. Talk about frustrating.

  7. Scotty

    I found out an interesting phenomena when I was still in grade school. As a very voracious reader ( at least one a day ) I would read silently to myself and usually had very good retention of the material covered…BUT…if I read out loud to myself, therefore not only taking the material in via my eyes to my brain, but my ears to my brain also, my later recall of the information I had read was greatly enhanced. There was such a difference in material retained in memory that I started reading to myself all the time out loud. I was amazed at the difference it made by taking the printed information in by two sources instead of just one. Try it out for yourself as a test.

  8. Keith Hale

    This may only be economy of writing from this article, but it sounds like the daily fMRIs were always done after the test of the material.
    I guess fMRIs are expensive, but it occurs to me that better scientific method would be to test for the content after the scans. The readings were ‘tainted’ by those tests.
    The later fMRIs wouldn’t be any different, but i’d think any ‘pop quiz’, even one you knew was coming would affect the brain state.

    Just a thought….

  9. Calliope

    This may be a neurological effect that is not related to just content. I suffer from vestibular migraines. I haven’t watched a movie in a theater since 1997. I get motion sickness and vertigo. Large flat screen TV’s, projector screens, video games, and digital films all make me sick or dizzy. Reading a book helps curb those feelings better than anything else. A good story line and page turning plot works even better. But, a page with fixed letters, helps regain balance and motor function and helps the nausea to subside.

  10. pete

    The act of reading is fundamentally meditative. The recurrent left-to-right pattern of eye movement and essential (sometimes deep) concentration triggers the brain in a unique way.

  11. Uzi

    “And the Lord said Read! (or Proclaim!)”

  12. Lily

    WOW!! That’s so cool! I love reading so much – this just makes it even better!

  13. Stephen Booth

    Scotty, when you read silently your brain takes the words, translates them to concepts, then builds the ‘image’ in your working memory where it is assessed by the manager function and those parts that seem important get moved to long term memory. Whilst your reading other information is also getting put into your working memory (e.g. sounds from outside, smells, how warm or cold you feel, how hungry or full you feel &c) and processed by the manager funcfuction of your brain and if they seem important stored in long term memory. Working memory operates a sort of first in-first out process so as it fills the older stuff gets pushed out if it hasn’t been put to long term memory, and forgotten (this is a massive simplification but it’s probably close enough for this comment). If you read aloud all those things happen but your linguistic centres also get involved, you have to translate the words you read not just into the concepts and ‘image’ but also into the sounds and how you are going to make them, which ups the priority of what you’re reading so it’s more likely to get stored in long term memory. Also reading aloud will probably be slower than silent reading so working memory won’t fill as fast so the concepts will remain in working memory longer so have a better chance of being stored.

    This is particularly noticeable in people with a deficit of working memory due to conditions such as Dyspraxia and certain forms of Autism.

  14. Robert Kelley

    A few years back I stopped reading books and gradually gave away a 3,000 volume library. It doesn’t give the satisfaction it once did. Internet and TV for me.

  15. Masidi

    Reading whether loud or silent have effect in your life.For instance if you read books that is not in your mother tongue. your ability to manipulate the language will improve You can only notice that communicating in that language.Also, It affect you character and relationship with other. You not know when you start emulate the character of the protagonist.

  16. Steven

    Only when reading fiction, and not for non-fiction?

    Or is it more about stories, narratives, plots, vignettes—with compelling drama and unforgettable characters—whether fictional or otherwise? (Who wouldn’t be interested in a well-written book telling the story of Bernie Madoff, or Nelson Mandela for instance, and wouldn’t those stories be as captivating as any work of fiction?)

    So, a well written story—one that brings you into the experience of the characters—has this profound effect on brain functioning. I would venture to guess that the brain doesn’t know or care if these people actually lived or not; only that the story is gripping.

    And, would it be accurate to assume that reading a book about microeconomics, plant biology, income inequality, modern dance or constitutional law wouldn’t yield the same beneficial effect?

    If so, what a time for the federal government to be forcing our public schools to implement the increasingly discredited “Common Core”, which explicitly emphasizes less reading of novels and more reading of non-fiction for all students, from K – 12.

    This is yet another reason for rejecting this radical—yet completely untested—change in the education of our children.

    Common Core appears to be all about making a handful of corporations, like Pearson, just to cite one, very wealthy, as they rush its implementation as rapidly as they can, before we parents and taxpayers find out more about it.

    This research is profoundly important. And so is understanding the threat Common Core poses to the education of our children.

  17. Rebecca Hollingsworth

    Fabulous, interesting information. This study is very intriguing from a point of study on alzheimers patients and their memory when reading a story or book. Would love to be a part of study!

  18. Lauren Michelle

    This is extremely interesting! I hope it is looked into further. I agree that I think it would be interesting to look into all forms of story telling, be it audiobooks, movies, radio, or books. I’m sure that we react to all of them a little differently and seeing the changes would be very interesting. I find that with books I have a stronger connection by the end, but it is built over time. With movies I have an immediate connection at the beginning, but it doesn’t seem to last as long as when I’m reading.

  19. Wendy Cooley, LMSW

    Ever read the book “Think and Grow Rich” Mr. Hill took over 20 years researching and writing this book. Main concept? You can create what you think. Depending what you are thinking and focusing on will depend on your outcomes in life. Very interesting to continue to see more and more that continues to validate his work.

  20. david

    I’ve been a reader for over sixty five years. I can’t believe there is a question. I spent thousands on reading material. Of course, I got cheated a lot.
    It must be the failings of our educational system that raises doubt. I understand cut and paste really means not reading and thinking.

    Still, I bet there are lots of pretty pictures of brain scans to look at.

  21. Ivan Izo

    I usually read about three novels a week and I’ve often wondered if I was just wasting time. But I can’t stop. I love novels. Nice to know it’s actually good for me. Thanks for the article Carol.

  22. Mark Kaminski

    Can’t help thinking this study is totally flawed by virtue of them taking a quiz right before the morning scans. If they would have taken quizzes after the non-reading evenings also, you might have something.

  23. NICOBSM

    Thank you to those for your inquires and those who responded for I have learnt a lot; it was quite enjoyable. happy holidays, n

  24. michael angelo

    This is a very interesting article. I have been a life long and very passionate reader. I never knew that there is something going on in my head in the moment that I am reading that is something really interesting literature. I am so proud sharing this article to my friends. Thank you for sharing your knowledge to use readers!

  25. Maureen McCarthy

    I’ve been reading 3 or 4 books a week for over 60 yrs. In that time I’ve gone through different types of books. Romances, self help, crime thrillers, what I read depended on what life experiences I was going through at the time. One common thread has always been crime. Making a study of serial killers, profiling of same etc.. The 3 books that I read over and over, were Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Little Women. I’m in my 60s now and read a diet of thrillers, with what they call chic lit books interspersed. I really like serial killer books. I really want to read a book for enjoyment, not because I can learn from it now. I pick up another book just as soon as I finish one. Now, after reading this article, I’m wondering just what on earth is going on in my brain. I am very interested in this article and would be very interested in reading more.

  26. Wenzel Massag

    I wonder if meditating on an experience and daydreaming about a situation have similar effects as reading. We could daydream about and meditate on our desired state of being and our brain would figuratively connect to that ‘reality’ by simulating the experience; leading us to behave in a way that attracts the kind of life we desire.

  27. Richard Draucker

    I read for 1 to 2 hours a night to my 4 yr old son (a few short stories followed by 1 to 3 chapters, depending on how tired he is, from a novel. We currently read books at 5 grade level, side by side, with him following along (correcting me when I make a mistake). This has been going on since he was around 2 1/2 years old.

    Note that he’s diagnosed with High Functioning Autism and has an estimated IQ of about 175.

    I’m wondering whether the effect is consistent whether the subject is read to while following along or reads the text entirely themselves.

  28. Rafi

    I was a voracious reader from earliest childhood into my 30s – classic novels, philosophy, history. Now I read primarily Jewish philosophy books, and more interestingly, the daily “davenning” which is 1.5 hours of excerpts of Psalms, Torah, and Talmud, read aloud, in Hebrew. I also combine my meditative reading with yogic breathing.

    I am acutely aware of the difference in my mind state on the days when I daven and the days I don’t. When I’ve davened I’m focused, more enthusiastic, and more patient. This could be the breath, the content of the reading/meditation, or the difficulty of pronouncing the language and reading foreign letters.

    I know that when I began davening, years ago, both my chess game and my piano playing skill levels made huge leaps.

    I’d love to see these tests done on people who are doing this kind of thing – Jews and certain kinds of Buddhists especially, who read very long and complex texts out loud on a regular basis.

    Great article – fascinating!

  29. Todd Schultz

    Keith, that is a good point. An even better method would be to not give the quizes until after all of the MRI’s were completed. Therefore, they’d “know” the effect was due to the reading and not the quizes.

  30. Anechidna

    Reading requires the brain to decipher and report which facilitates how our brains retain, store and recall information, typically called memory, to fix it our memory pulls it out of and restores it a number of times and then does so at intervals that ensures the memory is retained but if we don’t use the memory it just fades away.

    Watching or listening uses different pathways into the brain which impacts on how we store and retain. Tests have shown that kids who don’t use computers for basic lessons perform better than kids who rely on the PC for basic lesson tuition confirming the theory of how our brains functions. Audio visual is less tenuous as opposed to input via the written word which requires processing storage and retrieval.

  31. Viability Jane

    The interposition of someone else’s voice is signifant. The performance transmits an interpretation, fleshing out for us in a similar way that the “director’s vision” frames, directs, conditions the story for us. Reading is completely transparent on the face of it, in a ‘naive’ mode of apprehension. The word opens directly onto the narrative of our own fulfillment. Higher levels of literacy develop a wedge between our immediate fulfillment and the world-in-potentia of the narrative. This, though, would be true in cinematic literacy, as well. The intentional investment in reading is much greater than in video viewing/hearing, perhaps to a lesser extent with simple audition. Orality was the first and longest condition of our relationship with narrative, so I imagine that the evolutionary value of narration has made it a primary factor in global functioning, integrating the brain from stem through pre-frontal lobes

  32. Joanna Bruno

    I think a study should be done on the effects of music. Useing the same methods as in this study. I would be very intrested in the results, since I think that what we listen to also changes who we are, and what we become. Altumately changing the personality in very dramatic ways.

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