Article by Patrizia Cherubino // Head of Neuromarketing Research di BrainSigns
Patrizia Cherubino – researcher and Head of Neuromarketing Research at Brainsigns, – explains, in this article, the many positive effects that reading can have on our minds, illustrating recent insights.
In a world in which blogs, social networks and TV series count play an increasingly important role, how much is a literary work still able to make an impact on today’s cultural society? To what extent is a literary work able to excite us? And, last but not least, do you have to be an “expert” to enjoy a work emotionally?
It is a neuroscientific fact that reading is good for the brain, although there is still no specific area of the brain dedicated to reading. In order to distinguish letters, the brain “recycles” evolved neurons that were initially used to process other visual stimuli. This is the finding of recent research (2021) conducted by the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (Sissa) in Trieste and published in Current Biology.
After all, as also stated by the authors, written language was invented around 5,000 years ago and there has not been sufficient time in evolutionary terms to develop a dedicated system. Nevertheless, part of the adult cortex seems to be specialised in reading: when we have a text in front of our eyes, a specific part of the brain, the left fusiform gyrus, is activated to perform the task. This same area is involved in the visual recognition of objects, particularly faces. Reading triggers the same neurons that are activated when we engage in other activities, such as writing, running or merely touching an object. It is as if we are doing what we see the imaginary characters whose stories we follow doing.
Besides increasing our knowledge, reading allows us to identify with the stories and live the experiences narrated. It stimulates the imagination and inspires curiosity by mentally reproducing the scenes described, training specific areas of the brain, improving memory, increasing concentration, decreasing the risk of dementia, improving communication skills, enhancing analytical skills, developing creativity and helping us relax. The benefits of reading are manifold.
What happens to our brain when we read?
In 2013, a group of scientists at Emory University (Georgia) conducted research to measure the effects of reading on the brain and, in particular, to find out whether reading a novel could alter the connections in the brain. In this study, the researchers invited participants to undergo a functional MRI scan for 19 days, always after reading in the evening.
Psychologists have detected increased connectivity both in the left temporal lobe, an area of the brain associated with language, and in the central sulcus of the brain, which separates the motor cortex from the sensory cortex. According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, this means that reading a novel can actually transport you into the body of the protagonist. And it’s not just about a writer’s narrative ability, it’s something that happens at biological level. These neural changes induced by reading do not disappear immediately and could be even more powerful and lasting if you are reading your favourite book.
The benefits of reading
Again thanks to researchers at Emory University, reading literary texts has been shown to increase empathy and emotional intelligence. The effect is diminished, however, when we read non-literary essays.
Moreover, reading prolongs life, especially if we read novels, which not only open the mind, but also make their readers live longer than those who dislike losing themselves between the pages of narrative texts. These are the findings of research conducted at Yale University’s School of Public Health. Involving more than 3,000 people over the age of 50, who were asked to describe their book-reading habits, the researchers came to the conclusion that individuals who read less than three and a half hours a week were able to reduce their risk of death by 17%, while individuals who read for longer reduced it by as much as 23% compared to people who did not read at all.
Another research, conducted by the University of Sussex, revealed that reading is the best way to relax, and that reading for as little as six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 68%. Reading is good for the nerves and works better than a walk or a cup of tea.
Lastly, we know that those who love reading are able to experience emotions while reading that transport their minds beyond the boundaries of reality, transporting them to fantastic worlds thanks to their thoughts and emotions.
Is it possible to measure emotion when reading a text?
Neuroaesthetics, founded by the neurobiologist Semir Zeki, is an area of research that aims to scientifically investigate the neural basis of the brain processes that govern the enjoyment of a work of art. Neuroaesthetics mainly focuses on figurative art, but also music, cinema, the performing arts and literature.
In what way and to what extent can poetry arouse emotions?
Thanks to scientific and technological innovation, we now have agile instruments capable of measuring the emotion and involvement experienced when reading or listening to novels or great literary works.
In Italy, a collaboration born in 2017 between BrainSigns, a start-up of the Sapienza University of Rome, the Department of Letters and Philosophy of the same university and one of the oldest and most prestigious scientific institutions in Europe, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, resulted in the launch of the neuroaesthetics project entitled NeuroDante.
In Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, universally regarded as one of the highest expressions of poetry, it is clear that it is something more, which is added to a fabric of literary, cultural-historical and philosophical connections, etc.
The NeuroDante project has investigated several factors potentially capable of modulating the aesthetic experience: from the level of knowledge in the literary field to the sensory mode of experiencing the text, including the variable of the gender of the person performing the pieces.
The results of the NeuroDante project
And some of the main results obtained were the following:
- beauty makes everyone’s heart beat faster: you don’t have to be an expert to be moved by the Divine Comedy. On the contrary, a naïve audience shows higher levels of emotional involvement than experts;
- the pleasure of learning justifies the effort: cognitive effort in the enjoyment of the Divine Comedy goes hand in hand with indicators of a cerebral tendency to the approach to and interest in the text.
Researchers from the laboratory of Industrial Neuroscience at Rome’s La Sapienza University, headed by Prof. Fabio Babiloni, are conducting (2022) a further research phase of this project. For the closing of the Year of Dante, the exhibition entitled “The Reception of the Comedy from Manuscripts to the Media” is being held at the Accademia dei Lincei. Thanks partly to the collaboration with the actress Lucilla Giagnoni for the reading of the Comedy, the degree of acceptance of artificial intelligence (“emozIonDAnte”), a green lifestyle (“Dante evergreen”) and the neural correlates of possible synergies between reading and listening for learning (“TramanDante”) are being measured with neuroscience using the Mindtooth acquisition system.
So, with all the benefits of reading, all we have to do to get our emotions flowing is read… mindfully!!!
- Vidal, Y., Viviani, E., Zoccolan, D., & Crepaldi, D. (2021). A general-purpose mechanism of visual feature association in visual word identification and beyond. Current Biology, 31(6), 1261-1267.
- Cartocci, G., Rossi, D., Modica, E., Maglione, A. G., Martinez Levy, A. C., Cherubino, P., … & Babiloni, F. (2021). NeuroDante: poetry mentally engages more experts but moves more non-experts, and for both the cerebral approach tendency goes hand in hand with the cerebral effort. Brain Sciences, 11(3), 281.
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