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.

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder