By now everyone probably knows that reading a book always changes a reader in some way. The knowledge and insight gained from the book, regardless of how little or how much, would be enough to affect the reader's subsequent opinions and decisions on his personal and professional life. The more powerful the impressions the book makes on the reader, the more impact it has on the way they think.
A new study performed by researchers at Emory University and published in the journal Brain Connectivity now sheds more light on whether that subjective view has any physical correlation in the brain.
The researchers, headed by Neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, took 19 study participants and scanned their brains over the course of 19 days. For the first five days, their brains were scanned using fMRI to get a "resting state" of each participants brain. Over the 9 following days, each participant read approximately 1/9 of the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris, and their brains were scanned each day.
Each morning before the scan, the participants completed a quiz about the book's content, and answered questions about how the book made them feel. Then for the next five days following reading, their brains were again scanned. During this time, the participants didn't do anything except the brain scan. This was to look for lingering effects from the days spent reading the book.
After analyzing the scan results, the researchers found out that compared to the days where the participants didn't read the novel, there were three independent networks that showed significant increases in connectivity. Two of these networks involved brain "regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension." Those two networks showed a decay in connectivity after the participants were done reading the novel.
However, the third network highlighted by the study, showed that connectivity persisted in the five days following the experiment. Researchers believe this network may have been activated because this portion of the brain has also been shown to activate while people read metaphors involving the sense of touch. Researchers explained that this is because "the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity."
In other words, this could be proof that reading triggers brain activity associated with bodily sensations, which the researchers referred to as the Theory of Embodied Semantics. Per this theory, the reader's stepping into the shoes of fictional characters, especially those of the protagonist, and his processing of tactile metaphors can activate the brain pathways involved in controlling and representing his own body.
"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. It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last. But the fact that we're detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain," Professor Berns said.