Many avid readers remember forever the novels that deeply affected them. Stephen King has said that Lord of the Flies changed his life, because it had a point to make and was at the same time a great adventure story. I couldn’t name just one book that changed my life, but several still haunt me decades after I read them.
So I was interested to learn that researchers at Emory University devised a study to see if reading a novel could trigger measurable changes in a student’s brain. And they found out that it does—and those changes can linger for up to five days after the student stopped reading.
The study worked like this: The 21 participating students all read the same book: Pompeii, a thriller by Robert Harris that was published in 2003. For the first five days of the 19-day study, participants did no reading, but had their brains scanned for baseline measures. Then at a fixed time of day for the next nine days, the students read a portion of the novel. The next morning the researchers scanned their brains. After nine days when the students finished the novel, researchers scanned their brains for another five days.
The results: researchers measured heightened connectivity in the brain and 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. The changes registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language.
“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. Cool. But spooky.
Stephen King would love that.