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January 3rd, 2014

Why Are Books Good for You? Because They Literally Alter the Mind

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by David Rogers

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It’s unlikely that anyone would argue that reading is bad for you, but we now know a little more about exactly why reading is good for you. Emory University – right down the street from us in Atlanta – has released a new study finding that reading novels heightens brain activity. What’s more, that increased connectivity can linger for days after you have finished reading.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” said neuroscientist Gregory Berns, director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy and lead author of the study, to Emory’s eScienceCommons. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

Most of us know how a good book can seem to transport us to a different place and can affect not only our imagination but also mood and outlook. But it’s interesting to see a study confirm that there are actually physical changes happening in the brain, as well.

“Like a muscle memory”

The study had 21 Emory undergraduate students read the 2003 Robert Harris novel “Pompeii” and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify brain networks that were associated with reading. While similar previous tests typically measured brain activity while the subjects were reading, this study looked at brain scans the morning following a prescribed evening reading session.

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

Berns also said that the study did not reveal exactly how long these brain changes last but that they may linger for least five days. He also says that if these changes are seen in subjects assigned a random novel, your favorite novels could “have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

So if you ever have someone asking you about just why reading is good for you, you don’t have to tell the story of a book that changed your life. You can actually provide the science behind how books alter the mind.

Image Source: Flickr