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.”