Novels Change Your Brain. So What?

A recent study found that reading novels appears to alter one’s brain connectivity — a revelation that immediately spurred a lot of coverage, and I can see why. For this former English major who writes a lot about mind and brain, “novels light up the brain” raises some mighty mixed feelings, tempting pride at the power of the novel while setting my bullshit filter on high alert.

Sure enough, quite a few people took this study to task for overreaching. None has done so better than Christian Jarrett, who writes the Brain Watch blog at Wired. Jarrett does a fine job identifying the problems in this study and links to several other critiques. But he saves the best for his last paragraph, which adds, as nature neuroscience editor Noah Gray pointed out on Twitter, an invaluable extra depth you would almost never find in a mainstream publication:

I’m going to finish with a suggestion that the potentially important finding from this study is nothing to do with the brain-boosting effects of novels, but about the use of resting-state brain scans as a diagnostic tool (you can see why that didn’t make the headlines). The use of the scans in this way is predicated on the idea that they’re stable and reliable. Map someone’s resting-state connectivity today and you learn something meaningful about the long-term state of their brain, or so it’s hoped. Supporting this, Berns and his team cite past research on the stability of resting-state networks over a course of a year. Their motive was to show that you’d really expect resting-state connectivity patterns to be stable over 19 days, and it’s therefore a big deal that reading a book changed these networks. But let’s flip this. If an activity as straight-forward as reading a book has a significant effect on resting-state connectivity networks, this presumably undermines the clinical usefulness of resting-state scans. Or were the changes not that meaningful? The researchers can’t have it both ways, can they?

Splendid work, educating the reader memorably while getting at the sort of problem that haunts far too many brain-imaging studies.

When Jarrett started Brain Watch  a few months ago, I tweeted that I was quite pleased to see such a sharp, capable writer pick up the neuro slot I formerly worked in at Wired Science Blogs. Posts like this are why. Follow this fellow, both at Wired (through the link below) and on Twitter, where he is @Psych_Writer. He’s been killing the pscyh/neuro beat for some time now, and he’s only getting better.

Reading a Novel Alters Your Brain Connectivity – So What? – Wired Science.