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Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain

Susan Notes: Emory University scientists find that being pulled into the world of a gripping novel can trigger actual, measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading. I'd like to see the study done with young children, using fiction and non-fiction.

A novel look at how stories may change the brain
eScienceCommons (Emory Unversity)
Dec. 22, 2013

By Carol Clark

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

Their findings, that reading a novel may cause changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist, were published by 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's Center for Neuropolicy. "We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it."

His co-authors included 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.

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 Emory 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.

The researchers chose the novel Pompeii for the experiment, due to its strong narrative and page-turning plot.

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."

Read any mind-altering books lately? Writer Joyce Carol Oates once cited Alice in Wonderland as a big influence on her imaginative life.

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."

The Study
Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain

by Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye


We sought to determine whether reading a novel causes measurable changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain and how long these changes persist. Incorporating a within-subjects design, participants received resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on 19 consecutive days. First, baseline resting state data for a "washin" period were taken for each participant for 5 days. For the next 9 days, participants read 1/9th of a novel during the evening and resting-state data were taken the next morning. Finally, resting-state data for a "wash-out" period were taken for 5 days after the conclusion of the novel. On the days after the reading, significant increases in connectivity were centered on hubs in the left angular/supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri. These hubs corresponded to regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension, and the changes exhibited a timecourse that decayed rapidly after the completion of the novel. Long-term changes in connectivity, which persisted for several days after the reading, were observed in bilateral somatosensory cortex, suggesting a potential mechanism for "embodied semantics."

A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.-- William Styron,Conversations with William Styron.

Most people can identify books that have made great impressions on them and, subjectively, changed the way they think. Some can even point to a book that has changed their life. Stephen King, for example, said that Lord of the Flies changed his life, "because it is both a story with a message and because it is a great tale of adventure." Joyce Carol Oates pointed to Alice in Wonderland as "the book that most influenced her imaginative life." It seems plausible that if something as simple as a book can leave the impression that one's life has been changed, then perhaps it is powerful enough to cause changes in brain function and structure. Here, we test this possibility by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track changes in resting-state brain activity on a daily basis over a period of 3 weeks, during which individuals read a complete novel.

Novels are stories, and stories are complicated objects of communication (Abbott, 2008).* Although several linguistic and literary theories describe what constitutes a story, neurobiological research has just begun to elucidate brain networks that are active when processing stories. To date, these studies have focused on the immediate response to short stories (Mar, 2011). In other words, current neurobiological theory of stories describes the network of brain regions that is active and presumably responsible for cognitive processing of stories while they are being consumed. While active tasks have traditionally been used to identify functional networks within the brain, resting-state fMRI has become a common tool to identify consistent patterns of correlated activity, termed resting-state networks (RSNs) (Biswal et al., 1995, 2010; Kelly et al., 2012; Raichle et al., 2001).

Cognitive and emotional interventions have been demonstrated to cause transient changes in functional connectivity (Harrison et al., 2008; Hasson et al., 2009; Mackey et al., 2013; Stevens et al., 2010), but it is not known how long these changes last. Some changes appear to be due to transient activation of specific regions, which persists for minutes to hours (Hasson et al., 2009); while others may persist for longer periods of time and may represent cortical reorganization (Mackey et al., 2013). A limitation of these studies that makes it difficult to determine what are short- and long-term changes is the small number of resting-state scans actually performed.

To determine a timescale over which connectivity changes persist, we measured changes in resting-state connectivity as a result of reading a novel. We chose a novel over a short story because the length and depth of the novel would afford a set of repeated engagements with associated, unique stimuli (sections of the novel) set in a broader, controlled stimulus context that could be consumed between several scanning periods. A within-subjects design was selected for this pilot study because of its substantive control of individual variability, statistical power, and economic advantages in this type of study (Anderson, 2001; Shadish et al., 2002).

Materials and Methods


A total of 21 participants were studied. Two were excluded from the fMRI analyses: one for insufficient attendance, and the other for image abnormalities. Before the experiment, participants were screened for the presence of medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and none were taking medications. There were 12 female and 9 male participants between the ages of 19 and 27 (mean 21.5). Emory University's Institutional Review Board approved all procedures, and all participants gave written informed consent.

Reading material

Each participant was subject to 19 consecutive days (July 18, 2011â"August 5, 2011) of resting-state scans that consisted of a total appointment time of less than 30âmin at the same time each day. The first 5 days and last 5 days were "wash-in" and "washout" sessions, respectively. Each of the middle 9 scans was preceded by reading approximately 1/9th of the novel (Pompeii: A Novel, by Robert Harris, Fawcett, 2003). This novel was chosen because it was based on true events but written as historical fiction and conveyed in a classic narrative arc (Freytag, 1900). During the "washin" and "wash-out" sessions, the participants did not perform any other tasks except for the resting-state scan (Fig. 1). For each of the other 9 days, the story days, the participants performed the resting-state scan after taking a quiz and self-report about the effect of the material presented in the portion of the novel that was assigned for the previous night and included a five-point rating scale of how arousing the reading was (see Supplementary Data for quizzes; Supplementary Data are available online at www.liebertpub.com/brain ). Through repeated scans, each participant served as his or her own control to measure changes in resting-state connectivity after the consumption of the novel.

You can read the study here.

— Carol Clark and Gregory S. Berns, et al
Brain Connectivity and e-Science Commons


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