Kay: Story Junkies

brainMany readers remember forever the novels that deeply affected them. Many of us on this blog have said that we “love” books and reread our favorites, sometimes dozens of times. Why do we do that?

We’re story junkies. Literally.

Researchers at Emory University found that reading a novel triggers measurable changes in your brain. And those changes can linger for up to five days after you stop reading.

Participants in the study all read the same book: Pompeii, a thriller by Robert Harris published in 2003. The researchers established a baseline, and then every day for nine days the subjects read a chunk of the book. The next morning, the researchers scanned their brains. After participants finished the novel, researchers scanned their brains again for five days.

The results: researchers measured heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex of the brain, as well as neurological changes that persisted in a way similar to muscle memory—and these changes continued during the five-day post-reading phase of the study. That is, the participants did not have to be reading to have heightened brain activity.

That’s the power of story.

“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,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study, in an interview with The Independent, a newspaper based in the UK.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense,” he said. “Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Writers have always tried to create protagonists and antagonists that readers identify with, and to write books that people get caught up in. Now we know that if we succeed, we can literally change the minds of our readers.

How cool is that? Okay, and maybe also a little bit spooky.

7 thoughts on “Kay: Story Junkies

  1. So totally true, though. I am a book addict. And I belong to a group of people who regularly throw around the phrase, “The first hit is free” when referring to free sample chapters.

    (-: I can’t imagine undergoing a study like this. If I’m reading things correctly, the subjects had to limit themselves to 1/9th of the book on the days they read, and no books on the other days of the month. No reading? OMG, what a miserable existence!

    I do believe a book can have a lot of power — and not always in the ways the author intended!

    I’d like to leave my readers feeling a little bit happier after reading my books. I think that’s as far as my aspirations go, in that segment. (I may have one girl deep, deep down in the basement who is plotting world domination, though (-:. There’s one in every crowd . . . .)

    • I hadn’t thought about the not-reading aspect. They didn’t read the novel for five days to get the baseline, and then they did read 1/9 of the book every day until it was finished, and then they didn’t read again for five days afterwards. I wonder if they were allowed to read things like the news or magazines? Or even recipes? I bet they were, just as part of the baseline. But you’re right—not to able to read fiction for a few weeks would be brutal.

  2. So glad you posted about this, Kay, I read the same article and got equally excited. Books are the only medium that allows us to be inside a character’s head, right there with them as events unfold, and when the author gets it right the experience is unforgettable. It can be so powerful I suspect the effects might last even longer than the experiment suggests.

    It’s nice to see scientific proof for something I’ve always believed instinctively. I believe the digital revolution is also affecting how we read – have bought a couple of books about that so stand by for a post on the subject in due course 🙂

    • Sounds interesting! Yes—the effects of reading are powerful. When I was in high school, I got so caught up in Gone with the Wind that I read it in one day/night, finishing at 6am under the covers with a flashlight. When I think of that now, it still makes me smile. I wonder, if my brain were scanned when somebody said, “Gone with the Wind,” what would it look like?

      • Gone With The Wind – same here! I got into trouble with my parents but I couldn’t put it down. I think a scan of my brain would probably show trauma even today, because the girl who lent me the book told me it had a happy ending. So I was reading and sobbing,waiting for things to turn out okay and, well, you know the rest 🙂

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