By Nela Canovic
But, now there’s scientific evidence that reading fiction has a particularly positive effect on our brain function. Neuroscientists from Emory University published a study in the Brain Connectivity Journal to back up their claims, and it is called Short and Long Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.
What is the biggest takeaway from the study?
Reading fiction books improves all connectivity in the brain.
The novel that was given to students who participated in the study is Pompeii by Robert Harris, and it’s based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Here’s how the study unfolded. Students were instructed to read one chapter per day, which is approximately 30 pages. The experiment lasted 9 consecutive days. To monitor brain activity during both active and resting states, students had fMRI brain scans done before and after the reading sessions.
Results of the study showed the following:
There was increased activity in the left temporal cortex — an area of the brain associated with language learning.
Additionally, there was increased activity in the central sulcus of the brain — the fold in the cerebral cortex that separates the parietal lobe from the frontal lobe, and separates the sensory and motor areas of the brain.
What do these results mean in plain English?
Reading a novel improves our ability to put ourselves in the role of another person (the main or other characters in the novel), so it’s like assuming another identity and exploring what it might be like to interact with the entire cast of characters, experience a range of different emotions, and even make decisions as that person.
When we read, we perceive the body sensations of others through the “mirroring” technique, which is similar to visualization. For example, if the protagonist in the novel is running, even if we just think about that activity, this will activate our own neural networks associated with actual running — so we’ll actually “experience” the physical act. Think how powerful this technique can be if you apply it to your own life!
Most important, a key takeaway from the study is to read FICTION. This especially pertains to novels, so we can allow ourselves to become part of the story and bond with the characters and plot in order to boost brain function. While short stories are also fiction, their length may not allow sufficient time for the bonding to occur. Also, the effect can’t be achieved in the same way when we read nonfiction like history or science books, because the goal in non-fiction isn’t necessarily to identify with others — it’s more to gather facts.
What are implications for the brain in the long term?
Even when they weren’t reading, students’ brains showed increased activity. Scientists call this “shadow activity”, and this activity in the brain is similar to muscle memory. Muscle memory enables us to master a difficult task through repetition and practice over time so that it becomes second nature. In other words, muscles “remember” to act a certain way that over time will not require as much strain as it did initially.
Improvement in brain function wasn’t limited only to the experiment period. Here’s perhaps the most fascinating part of the study. A boost in brain connectivity persisted — neural changes remained active for days after the reading assignment was over, which suggests that we can experience similar benefits even while doing other types of activities such as studying, working, learning a new skill, or problem-solving.
How can you incorporate reading fiction into your day?
Turn it into a mini habit. Instead of thinking you need to save up money to start buying a ton of books, remember that reading is free; simply get a library membership. To streamline the novel selection process, download the Goodreads app so you can look for book recommendations, reviews, and plot summaries.
Make your reading habit a pleasant ritual. That way you’ll start looking forward to it. It can be as easy as setting aside 30 minutes to an hour each evening to find a comfortable seat in your home, pick some relaxing music, and make yourself a cup of hot chocolate or caffeine-free tea.
Select a book that’s the right fit for you. If you don’t know where to begin, take a look at Quora’s topic of novels, novel recommendations, or fiction book recommendations. Or, get inspired by the Goodreads Top 100 Literary Novels of All Time.