Sunday, January 5, 2014

Stories can change your life!

"The cool thing about reading is that when you read a short story or you read something that takes your mind and expands where your thoughts can go, that's powerful."
Taylor Swift
I’ve written before about the power of words and the importance of learning and reading for enhancing your life (Words are life enhancing, Loving your mind, Think about this, We are what we know). And now new research shows that even reading a fiction story changes the neural structures of the brain and leaves traces that last for days…

The following was reported in today’s Science News:
Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel. Their findings, that reading a novel may cause changes in resting-state connectivity of the brain that persist, were published by the journal Brain Connectivity.
"Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person," says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory's Center for Neuropolicy. "We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it."

The Emory study focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. Twenty-one Emory undergraduates participated in the experiment, which was conducted over 19 consecutive days.

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 reading assignments. "Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity," Berns says. "We call that a 'shadow activity,' almost like a muscle memory."

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

"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 says. "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."

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.
Given that research (for e.g. see here, here, here and images here) shows that new dendritic growth and neuronal connections can occur with less than a day in the brain(s) (yes, importantly neural plasticity has also been found in both the heart and gut brains as well as the head brain), this means that when you read a book that viscerally moves you, that grips your heart and stirs your mind, that you are literally growing new neural connections and changing the structure of your multiple brains (head, heart and gut).

So books and stories are powerful! They have the ability to alter your mind and your life. Question is…
What books and stories are you reading? 
 And what books have been life changing for you? 
Many people from around the world have told me that mBraining has been profoundly life changing for them. Now we know in part why, reading it will have altered the neural structures of their multiple brains in wise and generative ways.

Great wishes,


  1. This post supports the feeling I've always had that people need to be very selective in what they read and view. And it also made me think of the value of rereading certain books. For example, reading Wuthering Heights as a young girl, then as a teen, twentysomething, etc, has been a measure of personal growth, based simply on my changing opinions of Heathcliff!

    1. Hey Jean, you are so so right! Given that reading changes our brains and thereby our lives, we need to be incredibly selective in what we read (and what we watch). I love your example of re-reading Wuthering Heights and gaining personal growth from the meta-cognition and insights to your own changing opinions about the plot and characters.

      smiles, Grant


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