Stop Trying To Slog Through Nietzsche. A Juicy Novel Can Sharpen Your Intellect, Too

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I was fascinated by an article in the Science section of The Independent, a British newspaper.

Dated January 4, 2014, the article noted recent research done at Emory University. It revealed that reading a gripping novel can trigger measurable changes in brain function lingering for as long as five days after the subject has stopped reading. The research found that reading a compelling book may cause heightened connectivity and neurological changes in the brain, all of which registered in the left temporal cortex, an area associated with language reception and other important brain functions such as sensory and motor activity.

The article quoted professor Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and author of the study, who said, "The neural changes we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. 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 article provided details of the study, which involved students reading a 2003 thriller, Pompeii, by Robert Harris, which was chosen for its page-turning plot and strong narrative drive.

MRI scans done at that time revealed "neurological changes continuing for as long as five days after reading."

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

The article generated many comments in The Independent and some controversy since some people interpreted the findings as hinting that reading could "substitute" for actually engaging in physical activities.

Of course, the study does not imply that. It describes biologically measurable brain changes.

For me, the study confirms what is intuitive for many of us: reading compelling novels—especially those that resonate emotionally—causes mental and emotional arousal in the reader. This would, of course, involve important brain functions—especially those involved with receptivity and the process of identifying with a protagonist. (Maybe even feeling we inhabit his or her body in suspenseful situations). In that connection, think of how your heart begins pounding or you feel tense while reading a suspenseful passage, as though you are actually experiencing the protagonist's plight.

How many times have we read novels in which we fear for the protagonist or feel our pulses throb? Hence comes the phrase "heart-pounding" fiction, used so often in describing suspense/thriller novels. It's more than simply a figure of speech. It addresses actual physiologic changes.

Don't we feel satisfaction, even exhilaration, when the novel's protagonist brings order to chaos? Do not these feeling states imply identification with the protagonist; sharing the same conflict or problem; feeling, seeing, smelling, and hearing what he or she does? We care what happens in the imaginative world of the novel as it relates to the protagonist. Isn't it a true identification with the character? In a real sense, don't we inhabit his or her body, mind, and situation?

These findings confirm what many of us have always known: Depending on the novel, reading can cause arousal, fear, hunger, revulsion, warmth, satisfaction, exhilaration, and a host of mental and emotional states in the reader. Now we know there are measurable physiological correlates—altered brain activity with various neural connections and neurochemical changes occurring.

Does this actually mean reading takes you to other worlds besides your own?

Yes, it does.

Does reading promote brain activity and thus foster brain health? I think so. In fact, cognitive experts now recommend that older people stimulate their brains by doing various cognitive exercises.

Does all this imply that mental decline in the elderly may be forestalled by reading? That may very well be the case.

The most provocative aspect of the study is the finding that heightened brain function—connectivity and language receptivity—lasts for days after one has stopped reading. The implications of this finding are not yet clear but could have great meaning for people beginning to experience cognitive decline with advancing age.

But until the jury comes in with a verdict, there's one conclusion to be drawn: Keep reading!

© Mark Rubinstein, M.D., author of Bedlam’s Door: True Tales of Madness and Hope.

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