You know how it feels to get lost in a good story…
The outside world drops away and your imagination sparks as you practically smell the aromas and feel the same emotions the characters are experiencing…
Well, new research is discovering the neuroscience of reading, and what happens in our brains when we’re really engaged in a page-turning thriller or sweeping romance novel.
And it turns out, reading could have positive effects on long-term cognitive health, keeping low the risk of developing cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Read on to discover what kinds of reading can boost cognition, and how you can use them to keep your brain strong without leaving your favorite spot…
Research reveals that reading narrative stories stimulates your brain in a variety of ways that reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
To clarify, “narrative” means a story told in either first, second or third person that involves a protagonist, or main character.
It can be any genre of novel, short stories or creative nonfiction, but does not include reports or essays.
Humans have used storytelling since the beginning of time to transfer knowledge, offer advice and illustrate difficult or abstract concepts. We’ve evolved to respond on a visceral level to emotions conveyed through other people’s experiences.
Hence, our brains are hardwired to respond to stories today.
Stories stimulate the brain in important ways
A study performed at Emory University in Atlanta, GA aimed to discover whether or not reading fiction had any lasting effects on brain activity.
Using fMRI, researchers established the participants’ baseline resting-state brain activity for five days.
For the next nine days the participants read 1/9th of Robert Harris’s 2003 novel Pompeii, chosen for its strong narrative and compelling plot. They then had their resting-state brain activity measured the next morning.
The researchers discovered significant increases in connectivity in the left angular/supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri areas of the brain each morning after they read.
These areas are associated with language processing, spatial cognition, memory retrieval and empathy.(1)
The supramarginal gyri is also part of the mirror neuron system, which responds to actions we observe in others.
This system of neurons is what we use when we imitate social behaviors and how we can “read” situations and other people’s emotions.
Mirror neurons are so important to our functioning as human beings that they’ve been called “the neurons that shaped our civilization.”(2)
And you can strengthen them—and your memory—just by reading an engaging story.
Resting-state brain activity was also taken for five days after the reading portion was completed, and the participants showed increased connectivity during this time.
Researchers call this “shadow activity,” kind of like the brain’s version of muscle memory.
Now, curling up with your favorite author on a rainy afternoon is no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s an important part of your cognition-boosting regimen.
Reading and experiencing are the same thing to your brain
In the study at Emory University, researchers also observed long-term heightened connectivity in the bilateral somatosensory cortex (BSC) region of the brain, which is responsible for sensory information, navigation and spatial sense.
This is in tune with the results of another study, published in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers discovered readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative.
The brain takes information from previous real-life situations and incorporates it into the narrative situations, firing off the neurons associated with the feelings and actions in the story.(3)
For example, when a protagonist pulls the cord to an attic door, the neurons associated with controlling grasping motions are activated.
When a character moves through a doorway, your spatial sense neurons get to work. If the character is running, the area of your brain associated with running lights up.
To your brain, reading about someone doing something and doing it yourself are—on a biological level—the same thing.
So the next time you think you’re too busy to sit down and relax with a good book, remember:
You’re not slacking off, you’re supplementing your neurons so you can keep cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias away.
Now, where’s my “Go away I’m reading” coffee cup? I’ve got to find out what happens in the end of this book…
- Short- and long-term effects of a novel on connectivity in the brain. http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/brain.2013.0166
- Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510904/
- Reading stories activates neural representations of visual and motor experiences. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/20/8/989.short