Reading Changes Brain Connectivity

Reading a novel causes measurable and persistent changes in brain connectivity, building on findings that reading literary fiction can increase empathic awareness.

Gregory Berns

Gregory Berns

Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” according Emory University’s Gregory S. Berns, who with Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula,and Brandon E. Pye used laboratory imaging to investigate the impact of reading fiction.

The team conducted resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging scan (fMRI) of 21 volunteers on 19 consecutive days.

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

The first five daily scans provided a baseline, then participants read 1/9th (about 30 pages) of Robert Harriss Pompeii, a 2003 thriller, during the evening of the next 9 days.
For the next 9 mornings, they completed a quiz on the novel’s content, then resting-state (non-reading) fMRI.

Kristina Blaine

Kristina Blaine

The brain scans showed significant connectivity increases in the left angular/supramarginal gyri in the left temporal cortex and right posterior temporal gyri, areas associated with perspective taking and story comprehension.

Michael Prietula

Michael Prietula

The last 5 daily scans occurred with no reading the previous evening, and showed persistent connectivity changes for up to five days in bilateral somatosensory cortex in the central sulcus, suggesting neural mechanisms for:

Olaf Hauk

Olaf Hauk

-“Embodied semantics,” described by University of Cambridge’s Olaf Hauk and Nadja Tschentscher, as well as University of Southern California’s Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Antonio Damasio

-“Grounded cognition,” summarized by Emory’s Lawrence Barsalou

Lawrence Barsalou

Lawrence Barsalou

Muscle memory, investigated by Amirkabir University of Technology’s Hossein Hassanpoor and Ali Fallah with Mohsin Raza of Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences.

Brandon Pye

Brandon Pye

This somatosensory activation suggests that reading a novel activates neural changes found with physical sensation and movement systems.
Berns noted that “…good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense …(and)… may also be happening biologically.”

These fMRI findings reinforce findings that reading award-winning fiction can increase empathic awareness of others and related interpersonal insight.

-*What non-fiction reading provided memorable empathic insights about others?

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