Your Brain on Fiction

By: Lina Jamis, 1st year student in the Anatomy Graduate Program

BrainBook-300x199People love stories—we build social networks around them, we recount them to our friends and families at the end of our day, we whisper them in the dark to our children before they sleep. Stories are all around us, even in the most unlikely of places. It’s a human tradition with an effect on the brain that might explain why we love them so much.

Researchers have long known that classical language regions like Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are heavily involved in the interpretation of spoken and written word, respectively.

But what science has come to realize recently is that fiction stimulates many other parts of the brain, suggesting why the experience of reading can elicit such strong empathy. (You know you cried a little when Dumbledore died).

In fact, it seems that the brain does not make much distinction between reading about an experience and encountering an experience in real life. In each case, the same brain regions are stimulated.

Keith Oatley, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, and also a published novelist, suggests that reading produces a simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” The novel essentially allows us to interact within the confines of the narrator’s minds, to know his or her thoughts intimately, and to experience texture, movement, and emotion as if they were real—it’s a legitimate virtual reality, one that exercises our real-life social skills and stimulates the parts of our brains involved in sensory processing.

Image credit: Apologetics Press

Image credit: Apologetics Press

A study at Emory found that by becoming engrossed in a novel, we can enhance the connectivity in the brain’s temporal cortex and central sulcus, areas required for receptivity of language and primary sensory motor functions respectively.  Enhanced connectivity simply means that the neural machinery involved in the transmission of neural impulses is upregulated—i.e. more synapses, increased synthesis of neurotransmitters, thicker axons, and more activity within these networks.

Researchers asked 21 Emory undergraduates to come in for fMRIs over the course of 19 days. For the first five days, researchers took baseline images of the students’ brains. Over the following nine days, participants read 30 pages of Robert Harris’s novel, Pompeii, at night and then underwent fMRIs the following morning. After finishing the novel, participants were asked to come in for fMRIs for five more days.

The fMRIs revealed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex as well as other parts of the brain including the association motor cortices, which are associated with the physical sensation of movement.

Left temporal cortex

Left temporal cortex

Readers colloquially claimed that reading a good book can transport the body into the story—a figurative idea, but now one that may be occurring at some perceptual level. Greg Berns, the lead author of the study, says that it remains unknown as to how long the effects of reading last on the brain, but their lab’s results suggest that reading may have long-term effects through the by strengthening language processing areas and “embodied semantics,” or the idea that the brain displays activity during a mentally rehearsed action as if it was performing it live.

A 2012 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey found that people who like to read fiction are more driven by personal enrichment and described the common sentiment of enjoying being absorbed in another world. On the topic of fictional worlds, author Neil Gaiman has said, “once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.”

The question is now: how are you going to let fiction improve you and your brain?

Next time you feel guilt for replacing your textbook for a work of fiction, remember that books are good for the brain, possibly even more than we previously thought. For those who struggle to find a good book, Goodreads compiled a list of the Best Fiction of 2013.

So go forth, and treat yourself to some fiction. Your brain deserves it.

Currently reading: Wool, by Hugh Howey & A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

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