Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Next time you're about to sign in to your Netflix queue to watch another episode of Breaking Bad or New Girl, maybe pick up a good novel instead. The effects of this small choice may surprise you, suggests a recent article on The Independent.
According to new research conducted at Emory University, being immersed in the fictional world of a novel can create measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading.
Scientists found that reading a compelling book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that work in a similar way to muscle memory. The changes were registered in the left temporal cortex, a part of the brain associated with language receptivity, as well as the the primary sensory motor region of the brain.
This area of the brain has also been linked with tricking the mind into believing it is doing something it is not — what's known as grounded cognition. For example, just thinking about running can activate the neurons associated with the physical sensation of actually doing the task.
“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,” neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study, told The Independent. “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.”
The 21 students who took part in the study all read the book Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris, which follows the story of a protagonist who is outside the city and begins to notice bizarre things happening around the volcano.
“It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way. It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line," Professor Berns said.
Those involved in the research read portions of the book in the evening, followed by fMRI scans the next morning. After completing the book, their brains were scanned for five days. And, the results showed that the neurological changes that occurred while the students were reading the book continued for each of the five days after they finished.