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.

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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