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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Reading good stories: the new brain therapy?

I know that if I read a good book for 20 minutes or half an hour before going to bed, as opposed to lurching around the Internet for no good reason, then I’ll sleep better. (I know this because I have, oh definitely, tried both.) But could reading fiction at night actually give me a better-connected brain?

Lord knows I could use one. I do the meditation, and I’ve tried the ginkgo and so forth; but now a new study, reported in the journal Brain Connectivity, finds that reading a novel at night can have a measurable positive impact.

“At a minimum, we can say that reading stories — especially those with strong narrative arcs — reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days,” wrote Dr. Gregory Burns, lead author of the research paper and director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University, in an email to the Huffington Post. “It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains.”

And for aging writers? And the rest of us? Maybe we have underestimated the potency, the neurological physical benefit, of simply reading good stories.

Conducted at Emory in Atlanta, this research study involved 21 college students, a functional MRI scanner, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, and the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris. That particular story “was chosen because it was ... conveyed in a classic narrative arc,” says journal article, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” published late last year.

To measure resting-state brain activity at the start of the project, for five days the students were asked to do nothing but take an f-MRI scan each morning. (This may have sounded great to them, until they heard the morning part.) Then for nine evenings they read Pompeii, finishing the novel on the ninth night — and each morning that followed, after taking a quiz on the reading, they each had an MRI. The testing finished with five mornings of post-novel “resting state” scans.

“Consistent with theories of plot structure, the mean arousal ratings of the story rose consistently throughout the story and culminated with the climax — the eruption of the volcano and the destruction of Pompeii,” the researchers report. Connectivity within the brain, they found, increased through the reading time, and persisted for the five “after” days, in two key parts of the brain: one that links to language comprehension, and a second that receives bodily sensations and connects to movement.

“Enhanced connectivity here was a surprise finding,” Dr. Berns told the HuffPost about the latter — “but it implies that, perhaps, the act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist.”

I mean, whoa. Isn’t that what great novelists do: put the reader in the scene, and connect us deeply with the characters?

“Longer-term changes in connectivity ... increased in strength during the story days and remained elevated after the novel,” the research paper says. “It remains an open question for further study as to how lasting these effects are.”

To integrate, to make connections, to enter the experience of another: These have always been deep goals of good fiction writers, and of anyone who hopes to grow as a person and get beyond our limited selves. So we meditate, do yoga, take supplements; maybe we even pay for these brain-enhancing games on the Web. But what strikes me most about this new research is that a powerful practice may already be sitting, in an untidy and sometimes dust-gathering pile, on my bedside table.

And on yours?


This Feb. 28-March 7, the play version of Doug Wilhelm’s young-adult novel The Revealers is being performed in 20 schools in Soweto and Mamelodi townships, South Africa, by the Touring Troupe of the South African National Children’s Theatre Trust. Click here to find out more.

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