A recent study conducted by Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns published in the journal Brain Connectivity proves that reading an exciting novel will increase brain connectivity and that that connectivity even lasts days after having read the book. Since brain connectivity is essential to our cognitive processes, their study shows how important pleasure reading is for our cognitive development. Their study can be juxtaposed with an earlier study showing that Internet addiction reduces vital brain connectivity.
The study was co-authored by researchers from the Center of Neuropolicy Kristina Blaine and Bradon Pye, who also worked alongside Michael Prietula, a professor from the Goizueta Business School of Emory who specializes in information systems and operations management. Working together, their study specifically showed that reading an exciting novel increases connectivity in the brain’s language center, the left temporal cortex. In addition, the researchers also found increased connectivity in the sensory motor region of the brain, the central sulcus. This region of the brain is activated when doing activities; however, studies have also proven that even just thinking about activities like swimming, playing basketball, or running will stimulate activity in the sensory motor region of the brain. The fact that reading something exciting stimulates increased connectivity in the brain’s language center shows us just how important pleasure reading is to our cognitive abilities, specifically showing that pleasure reading is important to our abilities to think about, understand, and communicate language. The researchers’ discovery that reading an exciting novel also increases connectivity in the brain’s sensory motor region also shows us that, just as we’ve always believed, when we read something stimulating, we are literally putting ourselves in the shoes of the characters we are reading about.
The study was conducted over a period of 19 days and used 21 undergraduate students from Emory. During the course of the first five days of the study, as part of the study’s control, the students were given fMRI scans while resting to see what their current level of connectivity was. Then they were given nine 30-page sections of the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris, chosen for “its strong narrative and page-turning plot,” as Berns explained, as well as the fact that its account of historical events had a basis in reality. The students were assigned to read the sections of the novel in the evenings over a course of 9 days and then come back for more brain scans in the mornings for the remaining 5 days of the study. What the researchers especially found is, not only did reading something exciting increase brain connectivity, that connectivity even lasted days after they had stopped reading. Berns likens that type of connectivity to a “muscle memory.” While the scientists do not yet know exactly how long this connectivity, or “muscle memory,” would last, they assume that reading your favorite novels would trigger even greater and longer lasting activity within the brain.
Their study is especially interesting when we take into account the fact that pleasure reading is becoming a thing of the past. According to Psychology Today author Christopher Bergland, current statistics show that an entire 46% of students who graduate college will never ever read a book again once out of college. Statistics further show that 33% of children in America live in a home in which the TV is turned on for either all or the majority of the time. What’s more, we also know that children between the ages of 8 and 18 are watching on average 3 hours of TV per day. Furthermore, 43% of children under two years old are watching TV daily, and 61% of children under two years old have already learned how to use “some type of screen technology.” Why are these statistics important with respect to the new study showing that pleasure reading increases brain connectivity? Bergland further states that statistics show those who love and indulge in reading do so because they simultaneously choose to step away from the visual stimulation of the digital age. In other words, they read because they actively choose to turn off the TV and prefer to read rather than watch TV. Hence, starting at a very young age, we are raising children to do the things that do not increase their cognitive ability and language skills rather than doing things that do increase these vital necessities.
A further, more frightening study, found that Internet addiction even leads to reductions in brain connectivity. As Meenakshi Balakrishnan of the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences states, scientists studying Internet Addiction Disorder recently published their findings in the Public Library of Science Biology journal in an article titled, “Decreased Functional Brain Connectivity in Adolescents with Internet Addiction.” The scientists studied 20 teenage boys, who were either clearly addicted or not addicted. Through fMRI brain scans, what they found is that boys who were addicted were missing a total of 59 connectivity links that the non-addicts still possessed. The reductions in connectivity were seen in the frontal and subcortical areas and in the parietal and subcortical areas. The frontal area of the brain is responsible for all of our thought processes. It helps us make decisions, solve problems, choose between right and wrong, alter our emotional responses, and recognize similarities and differences, while the parietal area processes senses, such as “hearing, taste, touch, sight, and smell,” as well as our ability to recognize numbers and use our senses, such as by picking up an object. In addition, our subcortical regions control our memory and our abilities to move. Hence, if connections between the frontal, the parietal, and the subcortical areas of the brain are being lost, then it ultimately means that Internet addicts are losing some of their abilities to remember how to think, rationalize, use their senses, and move. Since more and more kids are becoming more and more entrapped in the digital age through TV viewing and Internet addiction and spending less and less time pleasure reading, these two studies combined help explain any changes we are seeing in kids’ behavior, both socially and academically, especially the ever declining test scores in reading and language.
Both of these studies show us that it’s high time we allow ourselves to step away from the entrapment of the digital age and return to the brain-strengthening activities of the past, such as pleasure reading.
Clark, Carol. (2013, December 17). A novel look at how stories may change the brain. eScienceCommons: Where science meets society . Emory University.
Bergland, Christopher. (2014, January 4). Reading fiction improves brain connectivity and function. Psychology Today .
Balakrishnan, Meenakshi. (n.d.). Give your brain a break. Arizona State University School of Life Sciences.