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Reading fiction and your brain

LAURI KUBUITSILE
Intuitively Iíve always known that reading fiction is good for a person. Studies published in 2006 and 2009 have shown reading fiction makes a person more empathetic.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, have found in their studies that readers of fiction have a more developed “theory of mind”. Theory of mind is the ability to recognise that you and others have all sorts of beliefs, and that those beliefs can differ from each other. This is important if we’re to be successful in our social interactions. These effects appear in what is called “deep reading”, which is found when reading books but not found when reading an article online for example.

In January 2014, in another study, published in the scientific journal Brain Connectivity titled ‘Short and Long Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain’ researchers showed that the brain is changed in traceable and apparently persistent ways by stories.

The research group, made up of the lead author Gregory Berns and co-authors: Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye, all from Emory University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRI) to track any effects in their subjects from the novel that they read.  This study was unique because the researchers were interested in the effects that remained after reading the stories. Most previous studies looked at the effect of reading while the person was reading.

The subjects read a thriller novel set at a time when a volcano (Mount Vesuvius) erupted, a book chosen by the research team. They chose the novel specifically because of its plot, which has very high drama as the protagonist is attempting to get back to Pompeii to save the woman he loves before the volcano erupts killing everyone. The subjects were tested each morning for five days before beginning the novel as a control. The novel was divided into nine parts, and participants read one part each night. In the morning they were quizzed to insure that they read their part, and then their brains were scanned in the fMRI. After finishing the book the subjects continued being tested for five additional days.

The first thing the

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researchers noticed in the mornings after the subjects started reading was increased connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the part of the brain dealing with language. They would expect to see that in a person who was actually reading at the time of the scan, but the subjects were not. This was the next day.

They also saw increased connectivity in the central sulcus. This is the part of the brain dealing with sensory-motor activities. Scientists know already that just thinking about a physical action, such as riding a bike, can produce activity in this part of the brain as if the subject was actually riding a bike. What this result meant was when the protagonist was running from the burning hot lava, the reader, at least in this part of her brain, was running from that hot lava too.

In Science Daily, Berns said about the results, “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. 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”.

It’s surprising enough that these changes in the brain persisted until the next morning after reading the novel the night before, but, in this study, the changes continued to be seen five days after finishing the novel.

What the long term effect of these connections is, is yet to be seen, though connections are what make a brain. Every time you learn a new skill a new connection is made. The constant increase in connections is the sign of an active healthy brain, the more connections the better.

In this study the novel was forced on the participants. Imagine what might happen if it’s a novel that you chose for yourself; it’s likely the long term effects and the amount of connections would increase. More reason for my common query when asked why read fiction? — why would you not read fiction?



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