Science Shows How Reading and Writing Affects Our Brains
Most people who have ever read a good book have felt like they were in the protagonist’s shoes. However, they might not be aware that biologically, it’s not far off.
A study led by Dr. Gregory Berns, director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI) to look at the resting states of 21 Emory ungraduates before and during, and after reading a 2003 novel called Pompeii. The study started five days before the reading, with a fMRI scan every day to get a baseline read on the resting states of the college students. After that, the subjects read Pompeii over the course of nine days at approximately 30 pages a day. This caused heightened brain connectivity that lasted for five days after the subjects finished the book.
There were two main areas that had heightened brain activity: the left temporal cortex and the central sulcus.
The left temporal cortex is not surprising. That is associated with language receptivity and after spending time immersed in a language, of course it would be heightened.
But the central sulcus is more interesting. It is the primary sensory motor region. The heightened connectivity in this suggests that people use the sensory parts of their brain while reading, as if experiencing the adventure first-hand instead of through the written word.
“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,” said Dr. Berns.
However, according to other studies, cliches lack the same effect most work has. Instead of registering the meaning, the brain only recognizes cliches as mere groups of words. Cliches are so overused that the meaning is quite literally stamped out of it, at least from the brain’s point of view.
There is also a difference between experienced and inexperienced creative writers, not just in work but in brain patterns. Dr. Lotze did a study on how creative writing affected the brain by taking scans of subjects who scribbled in a notebook propped up on a custom-made writing desk that allowed them to see their work while they were lying down. The first study he did was on writers with no creative writing experience. After getting them situated in the scanner with the writing desk in front of them, he asked them to copy a paragraph onto the notebook to get a baseline reading before showing them the first part of a short story and giving them one minute to brainstorm and two minutes to continue the story in their own words. During brainstorming, vision processing regions were active, while some areas in the brain were only active during the creative writing process, like the hippocampus, associated with retrieving facts that might help them in the story. The speech-centered regions and the region dealing with juggling several pieces of information at once also had a lot of activity.
However, when Dr. Lotze went to the University of Hildesheim, which is known for their creative writing program, he found out that the experienced writing majors used the speech-centered region while brainstorming as well as writing. Also, Dr. Lotze was pleased to see that the caudate nucleus was being used. The caudate nucleus is an important part of the brain for learning a new skill. When first learning something, be it music, sports, or writing, there is a lot of conscious thought that eventually becomes muscles memory. When it does, the caudate nucleus coordinates the process. This means that parts of writing eventually becomes muscles memory, just like techniques in music and sports.
So, just like any skill, creative writing techniques eventually become muscle memory, and different strategies are eventually used.