Can Stories Change the Brain?
News Editor: Maria Kostyanaya
Many of us can recall at least one cherished story that had a significant impact of our life. In a recent study at Emory University researchers have identified certain biological traces that might be related to this effect: actual changes in the brain that remain, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.
The director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, neuroscientist, and leading author Gregory Berns says, “stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person…we want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.” Co-authors include Kristina Blaine, Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula, professor of information systems and operations management at Emory’s Goizueta Business School.
Published in the journal Brain Connectivity, the research findings suggest that reading a novel may cause persistent changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain.
In previous neurobiological studies, with the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), investigators identified particular brain networks associated with reading stories. The main focus was given to the cognitive processes involved in being engaged with short stories, and subjects were observed through an fMRI scan while reading such stories.
It is particularly remarkable that in the Emory study researchers turned their attention to the enduring neural effects of reading a narrative. Thus, twenty-one Emory undergraduates participated in the experiment, which was conducted over 19 consecutive days. All of the study participants read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy. “The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns explains. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.” The researchers chose the book due to its breathtaking plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”
For the first five days, the subjects came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then over a nine-day period they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain again in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the subjects returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.
On the mornings following the reading assignments the scans showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns clarifies. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”
Heightened connectivity was also found in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of bodily sensations, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. For instance, thinking about running can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.
“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,” Berns extrapolates. “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.”
Most important, the neural changes were not just immediate reactions, since they lasted the morning after the readings and for the following five days after the subjects completed reading the novel. In this regard Berns states: “It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last…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.”
It seems to me that elaborating on this research area may suggest more robust neurobiological underpinnings to those therapeutic techniques that include narratives and semantic tools. That is exactly where art meets science in our professional area.
Journal reference: Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, Brandon E. Pye. Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity, 2013; 3 (6): 590 DOI: 10.1089/brain.2013.0166