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How Literature Changes Your Brain for the Better (Part 2)

Bibliophiles rejoice!  The Savvy Psychologist explains why reading literature enhances brain connectivity. 

By
Ellen Hendriksen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
February 11, 2014
Episode #400

Page 2 of 2

Reading Caused Noticeable Brain Changes

Two things happened.  First, on the mornings after participants spent the evening reading, there was more connectivity, or coordination of neuronal activity, in the areas of the brain that respond to language, perspective taking, and comprehension.  So not only did the brain’s connectivity change in response to reading, but these changes also stuck around even hours after the book was closed for the night.

Those Brain Changes Lasted for Days

Second, other changes lasted even longer—in fact, for several days after the novel was finished.  These neural changes were associated with physical sensation and movement.  

It’s Almost as if You ARE the Character

It’s an established fact that thinking about running increases blood flow to the brain cells associated with actually running.  But with these findings, the researchers concluded that not only do you, the reader, stand in the shoes of a character figuratively, you may also do so neuronally.  Your brain senses what the character senses, and moves, at least in your brain, as the character does.  When the character runs for his life, stoops to drink from a stream, or doffs his hat, your brain cells do the same.

Now, reading about a character running certainly won’t burn any calories, but engaging your brain in a novel is neuronal exercise.  Just as your muscles ache the next morning from a good workout, your brain’s connectivity snaps, crackles, and pops with a good story hours and even days later.  So from Boo Radley to Jay Gatsby, rest assured that your favorite characters do more than entertain and teach; they leave their mark on our very neurons, helping us understand others and more adeptly navigate our world.  You may never live life in first person omniscient, but a little Tolstoy, it seems, can get you started. 

How Do You Rate?

And after all this talk last week about theory of mind and this week about neuronal changes, you may be wondering how your brain compares?

One of the ways the researchers measured how well people could read the thoughts and emotions of others is a test called the Reading the Mind In the Eyes.  You look at pictures of peoples’ eyes—just their eyes—and select what you think the person is doing or feeling, from “fantasizing,” “despondent,” “apologetic,” “preoccupied,” and so on.  You can try it for yourself—because links often change or become outdated, I won’t give you a specific link here, but you can search online for this phrase: “reading the mind in the eyes.” I took one of the tests and did really well. What a relief! 

This podcast was written by Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, the Savvy Psychologist. Subscribe to her podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcatcher. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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