Reading books does re-wire your brain, but so does everything else

Another day, another study misrepresented as causing our brains to change in some mysterious, irreversible way.

Is reading a book a way to get a short-term intelligence top-up? That’s the implication of a study by an Emory University team of neuroscientists, led by Gregory Berns. The Independent reported this as evidence that reading a novel can lead to a “boost” in brain function for “days” afterwards, while the LA Times says it means books “exercise muscles in the brain” so effectively that it can be detected for up to five days afterwards.

The study in question - “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain”, published in the journal Brain Connectivity in on 6 December (here’s the link) - isn’t quite as definitive as those headlines make out. It’s one of those instances where the media has fallen for the “[x] ‘rewires’ the brain” myth, one that’s as common (and as mistaken) as the “we only use ten percent of our brainpower” myth, or the “right brain/left brain” myth.

Everything we do makes our thinking organ ‘rewire’ itself, as it works by forming new connections between neurons, creating new neural networks - it’s called neuroplasticity. Those panic stories that appear in the Mail claiming that Facebook/porn/violent movies/etc. are causing long-term damage to the brains of our children are based on the dodgy assumption that those activities cause the brain to reconfigure itself in a harmful way, and for it to then get stuck like that, like pulling a face when the wind changes. Nope, that’s not how it works.

So, to the study. Here’s what it measured: 19 participants (not 21, as reported elsewhere) were scanned by an MRI machine over 19 days. There was a five day “wash-in” period to establish a baseline, nine days over which the participants read the novel, and a five day “wash-out” period to see how long changes were measured.

The book, in this experiment, was Pompeii by Robert Harris. “This novel was chosen because it was based on true events but written as historical fiction and conveyed in a classic narrative arc,” Berns writes. It’s a book that ends with a massive volcano blowing up and everybody dying, so the plot has a pretty predictable build-up and climax that would hopefully show up in the brain scans - and, what do you know, they did:

On the days after the reading, significant increases in connectivity were centered on hubs in the left angular/supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri. These hubs corresponded to regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension, and the changes exhibited a timecourse that decayed rapidly after the completion of the novel.”

Translation: bits of the brain that do language stuff changed, and started changing back after the book ended. That might seem to justify the idea of books being used to “boost” brain function, but don't be too hasty.

Firstly, 19 participants is a tiny sample size, and secondly, there wasn’t a control group. Instead, “through repeated scans, each participant served as his or her own control to measure changes in resting-state connectivity after the consumption of the novel.” We can be relatively confident, because of this, that the changes in brain connectivity that were observed did happen - but we can’t be sure that it’s the books that caused it. The participants all went through similar experiences over 19 days, of which only a part was reading the same book.

Maybe the changes observed are what happens when you get used to sitting inside a big machine once a day for three weeks. Or, maybe it’s what happens when you take a quiz every day, something that Berns considers in his conclusion:

[Resting-state networks] are known to be altered by recent language comprehension tasks (Hasson et al., 2009) as well as visual categorization tasks (Stevens et al., 2010). Although the chapter readings were performed during the evenings before scans, the quizzes occurred just before the scan. The quizzes, therefore, might be responsible for such immediate changes in resting state, though the tasks differ in their orientation.”

Let’s accept that it is the book that did it - what does it tell us? That a book about a volcano exploding, with a simple plot, changed the structure of a small part of the brains of a small group of people. It’s a leap to then assume that it would lead to a boost in mental ability - either when it comes to the parts of the brain where changes were seen, or across the whole brain.

It also says nothing about what kinds of books cause the change. Is it all novels? Is non-fiction just as good? Is it a narrative that matters, or is experimental fiction just as useful? What about poetry, or fan fiction, or the comments section of YouTube? Or what about an article like the one you’re reading right now?

Scientific discovery tends to be a gradual thing, taking place over many years with many people building up a combined body of knowledge. This study is interesting in that context - not in any kind of way that can be used to attribute magical powers to novels. As much as we may love our favourite books, that's a bit of a stretch.

A scan of a human brain. (Image: Reigh LeBlanc/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism