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fMRI Shows Traces Left On Brain By Stories

January 3, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Reading a story causes changes in brain connectivity that persist for at least several days, according to researchers at Emory University in Atlanta.

The researchers asked 21 Emory undergraduates to read the 2003 novel Pompeii, by Robert Harris. It’s a thriller about the first-century volcano eruption that destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii, featuring an engineer who puzzles over the early signs of the eruption and eventually tries to save a woman from death.

Study participants got baseline functional MRI brain scans, then an additional scan after each of nine days of reading. After finishing the novel, they returned for five more mornings of scans in a resting state.

Results showed increased connectivity in the left temporal cortex on mornings after the subjects had read part of the novel the night before. That area of the brain is associated with receptivity for language. Gregory Berns, PhD, MD, lead author of an article about the research, explained the finding:

Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity. We call that a shadow activity, almost like a muscle memory.

Dr. Berns directs Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. He was quoted in an Emory news release. The article about the research was published last month in Brain Connectivity, after online publication ahead of print in October.

The researchers also found heightened connectivity in the central sulcus, the brain’s primary sensory motor region. “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,” Dr. Berns said.

The study followed its subjects for only five days after they finished reading, so it didn’t reveal whether the increased connectivity might be permanent. “It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Dr. Berns said. “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.”

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