Is there any greater pleasure than rising to greet a new day knowing that all that lies before you is hours spent curled with a good book? Yes, OK physicists, we hear that a day spent discovering the â€œGod particleâ€, the smallest possible quantum of the Higgs field, would also rate highly. Granted too, Highland enthusiasts, that a day spent standing on high ground, your tartan grandly displayed, sporran standing proud, wind whipping its way beneath your kilt, as bagpipes skirl in the background, is also a grand day. Even allowing for all our special predilections and peccadilloes, surely reading a novel must rate as an activity that cuts across all sectors. If you have ever, or do ever, spend time in a novelâ€™s thrall, it might interest you to know that you are being profoundly changed by the experience.
To study the effect of novel reading researchers had their subjects read the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris. The novel is, as the name suggests, a fictionalised account of the events surrounding the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the Roman coastal town of Pompeii. It was chosen for its strong narrative to keep the subjects interested.
The study first involved all subjects reporting for MRI scans of their brain every day for five days. The subjects were then given the novel and given a set amount to read each night for nine nights. Each morning they were tested to ensure they had done the reading and were given MRI scans. Then each day for five days after they had finished reading the book they again reported for MRI scans.
The scans showed that on mornings after the reading sessions the subjects had increased connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain linked to receptivity for language. Additionally, there was boosted connectivity in the central sulcus, a part of the brain involved in representing sensations in the body. These changes in the brain persisted even five days after finishing the novel.
This brain change is known as â€œshadow activityâ€. It means that merely thinking about juggling can activate neurons in the brain that are associated with the physical motion of juggling. This is the power of story; it is why we have sat around campfires, why we chat over coffee, why we watch films and why we read books. Story teaches us and it transforms us. This study shows that the act of taking in story via reading a novel transports you into the bodies and experiences of the protagonists and, in so doing, changes your brain for way past when you stop reading the particular book.
This is all very exciting, although the knowledge that you biologically live out the action in your novel may give pause to fans of murder mysteries or even Harry Potter (can your constitution really stand up to a stern game of quidditch?).
You already knew that a good book can be life changing but now you know it can be brain changing as well.