Study: Novel Reading Generates Sustained Boost in Neural Connectivity

By Anthony Rebora — January 13, 2014 1 min read
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Good news for language arts teachers: A new study out of Emory University offers hard evidence that reading novels is more than just high-level entertainment. It also appears to be good for your brain.

The study, published in the journal Brain Connectivity, involved giving regular MRI brain scans to college students who were in the midst of reading Pompeii, a thriller by Robert Harris. The results showed heightened connectivity (compared with baseline scans) in the areas of the brain associated with language receptivity and representative understanding—that is, grasping or sensing things you aren’t literally experiencing.

“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 the lead author of the study, Emory neuroscience professor Gregory Berns. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The heightened activity in these areas of the brain was apparent even days after the students had been actively reading the book, suggesting that something akin to muscle memory was activated.

This is the second recent study to highlight the cognitive benefits of reading fiction. A study published in the journal Science in October found that reading serious literature helps students build complex social skills like empathy and intuitive understanding.

Of course, these studies come at a time when some educators are worried that teaching fiction in schools is in peril because of the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on nonfiction and informational texts. Middle school language arts teacher Ariel Sacks, author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class, for one, argued recently that these fears are largely unfounded:

The Common Core standards for English Language Arts require more nonfiction than we've seen in the past, but this is across content areas, as [common-core authors] David Coleman and Susan Pimental clarified almost a year ago. This means we need to collaborate with content area teachers, not that we should stop teaching fiction!

But then, it probably depends quite a bit on how your school or district is interpretating and implementing the standards.

Photo: Sarah Kirby, 17, looks for textual evidence to support her interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby during an International Baccalaureate English class at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y.--Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.