January 30th 2014

The Power of Reading — That engrossing novel you can’t put down is changing your brain. Researchers are discovering what actually happens when a reader encounters the imagination of an author on the printed page.

A study at Emory University reveals biological traces of the sensations we experience while reading. “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

Actual biological responses occur in the bodies of readers. Researchers identify specific brain networks associated with reading and measure actual changes in the brain occurring during and after reading a gripping novel. Findings indicate that heightened connectivity and neurological changes mimic those of muscle memory. Changes occur in the left temporal cortex, the area associated with language reception, which is the principle sensory motor region of the brain.

Each night of the study, subjects read a section of the novel, Pompeii, by Robert Harris. Each morning, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans were done and neurological changes were noted. After reading the entire book, the subjects’ brains were scanned for an additional five days. Neurological changes remained after finishing the book.

“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory. It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last. But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

“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. Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition – for example, just thinking about running, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.”

“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.”

These findings were published by the journal Brain Connectivity.

I invite readers of this column to share your stories of life changing books. What did you read that had a mighty impact on you?

This week’s pick for family reading

Abuela by Arthur Dorros challenges the imagination and explores the ways we see the world.

Richly colorful illustrations by Elisa Kleven provide visual appeal as a young girl and her grandmother rise above their crowded city to get a whole new perspective.

Parent Literacy Workshops

New classes for parents of three and four year olds are forming now. Next week, First Teacher workshops start on Wednesday at Conlee Elementary School and Thursday at Jornada Elementary School. There is still time to register. Contact me at roriecrf@gmail.com

In Chaparral, the Winter Session of READY! For Kindergarten will be presented at the Dolores Wright Community Center. Project Director, Ida Garcia has announced that parent classes will be taught by Rosa Ramirez and Alicia Villarreal. Leaders of the children’s activities are Minerva Espinoza, Carmen Espinoza and Isabel Rodriguez.