How Reading a Novel Can Improve the Brain

"Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity," Berns said in releasing the study.

The effect lasted, but the experiment left more questions than answers.

"It remains an open question for further study as to how lasting these effects are," the study concludes.

The study underscores the difficulty of conducting brain research among healthy subjects when it's impossible to control every aspect of their lives.

They obviously read the book, because they passed a quiz each day before being rolled into the scanner, but what else did they do? Were they still thinking about the book while in the scanner, although they were supposed to be at a "resting state" in which they are mentally unengaged? And it is known now that the human brain is never really "at rest." It remains an active processor, even in our sleep.

The fact that the participants' neural circuits were active while they were reading is not surprising, because some circuits light up whenever we do anything. But the effect lasted beyond the book, and that has intrigued other scientists who must now duplicate, and expand, the findings for them to remain viable.

There is some support for the Emory scientists from unrelated research projects. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, found that children who had trouble reading gained a major benefit during a six-month effort to raise their reading skills.

The children improved their ability to read, but they also increased the neural connectivity within a key network. That research showed that behavioral training -- reading, in this case -- can actually "enhance brain function," Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which supported the work, said in announcing the findings in 2009.

Interestingly, those improved circuits may not be the same circuits the children will use as they grow older.

Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that even the seemingly simple act of reading involves 17 regions of the brain, but not all at the same time. They studied 30 persons ranging in age from seven to 35 and found that some regions actually grew less active with age, so even the physical activity in the human brain is not constant.

And that reinforces something our mothers tried to teach us: Start early. Read often. Give your brain a little help.

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