In a study published in the journal Brain Connectivity, the researchers say reading a novel may cause actual changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist.
"Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person," Emory neuroscientist and study lead author Gregory Berns said. "We want to understand how stories get into your brain and what they do to it."
Twenty-one Emory undergraduates participated in the experiment, undergoing MRI scans of their brains in a resting state before and after reading sections of a novel during a 9-day period.
The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the daily reading assignments, the researchers said.
"Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity," Berns said. "We call that a 'shadow activity,' almost like a muscle memory."
Heightened connectivity was also seen in the primary sensory motor region of the brain, associated with making representations of physical sensation for the body.
"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," Berns said. "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."