This Is Your Brain on Books

Scientists quibble over value of reading books when it comes to shaping our brains.

Researchers at Emory University saw heightened activity in areas of the brain connected to language and comprehension in study participants after one day of reading.
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When you gifted that dog-eared, favorite novel to a friend, you might have described it as inspiring, even life-changing? What about brain-changing?

Scientists used the brain scans of individuals reading the same novel to show changes in specific parts of the brain associated with language and other parts associated with physical sensations and motor activity. What's unique about this study is that subjects were not actively reading or moving as their brains were being scanned. However, they may have been thinking about the act of reading and relating to the physical actions of a protagonist in the story.

Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta spent three weeks scanning the brains of 21 subjects at the same time each day, before, during and after a nine-day reading assignment. Dr. Gregory Berns, who led the study, said its purpose was to see if the act of reading a book was a strong enough stimulus to establish new neural connections in the brain.

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"We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it," said Berns, who is also director of Emory's Center for Neuropolicy, in a release. The study, which was published in Brain Connectivity in December, has been harshly criticized by some members of the scientific media.

"Reading a novel induces connectivity changes in the brain … but so does everything else you did or are doing today," said Noah Gray, the editor of Nature, on Twitter, according to Forbes.

Berns said the fact that the study subjects weren't enaged in reading during any of the scans was particularly interesting because it suggested that the increased activity researchers found was likely due to "leftover or 'primed' networks" that were still engaged from reading the book the previous night.

Berns, responding to some of the negative publicity his study received, argues the logic that 'everything you do changes your brain' is flawed.

"We don't have a molecular microscope to see what happens at every synapse in the brain, so the relevant question, and the one we approached is this: Given current brain imaging technology, can we detect changes in brain connectivity that are attributable to the consumption of an extended narrative, even against the background of all the other things that happen to an individual?"

Unlike typical brain scan experiments where a subject is asked to perform an activity, such as move a joystick through a maze or to look at images on a screen, this particular study focused on the brain in its resting state. So the fact that researchers found brain activity related to areas of the brain associated with reading was exciting to the study authors.

Here is how the study worked. First, Berns and his colleagues established a baseline for the study's participants, undergraduate students at Emory, by scanning their brains during a five-day "washin" period, before assigning any reading. Then, subjects were given a copy of "Pompeii: A Novel" by Robert Harris and tasked with reading roughly 30 pages each night for nine days. The morning after each reading session, the subjects completed a brain scan. Subjects were also quizzed on the readings and asked to answer questions related to their feelings about the book. The experiment ended with five more days of brain scans during a "washout" period after the book had been completed.

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Berns and his colleagues chose the book because it was based on real events, namely the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and because it had a "classic narrative arc."

Again, participants were not actively reading when their brains were scanned. Instead, they were instructed to "rest" and keep their eyes closed. Such scans are considered a reliable way to identify patterns of activity in different areas of the brain known as "resting-state networks," because of their high degree of repeatability, according to the study. Sometimes scans reveal transient changes in these neural connections or resting state networks, and sometimes these changes endure.