Our Brain on Books

Brain-on-BooksHere’s another neuroscanning study out of Emory University showing the power of a story.

Lead researcher Gregory Burns and his team wanted to “understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.” Their findings seem to indicate that stories, in this case a historical fiction novel about Pompeii, caused a number of changes in the participants brain, at least in the short term. Over time, some of these changes decayed, but more research is required to determine how long lasting the changes are.

One would expect reading to alter related parts of the brain and this was true in the Emory study. The left temporal cortex, a section of the brain that handles language reception and interpretation showed signs of heightened connectivity for a period of time after reading the novel. This is almost like the residual effects of exercise on a muscle, which responds favorably to usage.

What was interesting, however, was that the team also saw increased connectivity in the areas of the brain that control representations of sensation for the body. This relates to Antonio Damasio’s “Embodied Semantics” theory where the reading of metaphors, especially those relating specifically to tactile images, activate the same parts of the brain that control the corresponding physical activity. The Emory study (and Damasio’s work) seems to show that if you read a novel that depicts physical activity, such as running through the streets of Pompeii as Vesuvius erupts, your brain is firing the same neurons as it would if you were actually doing it!

There are a number of interesting aspects to consider here, but what struck me is the multi-prong impact a story has on us. Let’s run through them:

Narratives have been shown to be tremendously influential frameworks for us to learn and update our sense of the world, including our own belief networks. Books have been a tremendously effect agent for meme transference and propagation. The structure of a story allows us to grasp concepts quickly, but also reinforces those concepts because it engages our brain in a way that a simple recital of facts could not. We relate to protagonists and see the world through their eyes. All our socially tuned, empathetic abilities kick into action when we read a story, helping to embed new information more fully. Reading a story helps shape our world view.

Reading exercises the language centers of our brain, heightening the neural connectivity and improving the effectiveness. Neurologists call this “shadow activity” – a concept similar to muscle memory.

Reading about physical activity fires the same neurons that we would use to do the actual activity. So, if you read an action thriller, even through you’re lying flat on a sofa, your brain thinks you’re the one racing a motorcycle through the streets of Istanbul and battling your arch nemesis on the rooftops of Rome. While it might not do much to improve muscle tone, it does begin to create neural pathways. It’s the same concept of visualization used by Olympic athletes.

For Future Consideration

As we learn more about the underlying neural activity of story reading, I wonder how we can use this to benefit ourselves? The biggest question I have is if a story in written form has this capacity to impact us at all the aforementioned levels, what would  more sense-engaged media like television or video games do? If reading about a physical activity tricks the brain into firing the corresponding sensory controlling neurons, what would happen if we are simulating that activity on an action controlled gaming system like Microsoft’s X Box? My guess would be that the sensory motor connections would obviously be much more active (because we’re physically active). Unfortunately, research in the area of embodied semantics is still at an early stage, so many of the questions have yet to be answered.

However, if our stories are conveyed through a more engaging sensory experience, with full visuals and sound, do we lose some opportunity for abstract analysis? The parts of our brain we use to read depend on relatively slow processing loops. I believe much of the power of reading lies in the requirements it places on our imagination to fill in the sensory blanks. When we read about a scene in Pompeii we have to create the visuals, the soundtrack and the tactile responses. In all this required rendering, does it more fully engage our sense-making capabilities, giving us more time to interpret and absorb?

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