Books, violent games and the bias of brain science

Photo by Flickr user bucaorg.

Photo by Flickr user bucaorg.

A new study into how reading fiction and literature affects our brains is finding that — gasp! — it changes our brains! More specifically:

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” says Gregory Berns. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

In the small study at Emory University, 21 people were asked to read sections of a novel (Robert Harris’ Pompeii), while their brains were studied in an fMRI machine. They read on some days and took breaks on other days, to give the researchers the chance to figure out what was triggering brain shifts.

Although they found that changes in parts of the brain devoted to “perspective-taking” decayed quickly once they finished reading, “Long-term changes in connectivity, which persisted for several days after the reading, were observed in bilateral somatosensory cortex, suggesting a potential mechanism for ’embodied semantics.'”

Why am I mentioning this, when it has nothing to do with video games, heavy metal, the occult, goth culture or role-playing games? Well, some of you may recall this post, in which I described a Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis study in which the researchers found that playing violent video games also changed players’ brains — and implied that such changes were negative, or at least the ensuing press coverage did.

But I wonder, now, what those Indiana researchers looked at. Did they look at the same areas of the brain as the Emory scientists? If they had, would they have found some of the same “perspective-taking” changes, given that many video games ask you to take on the role of a character in the game? I suspect, too, that this happens when engrossed in a good role-playing game character, and possibly even when you’re listening to a powerful song that’s told from another person’s perspective (Bruce Springsteen’s and Tom Waits’ music are full of such opportunities).

We’ve come to know so much more about neuroplasticity. We know our brains change when we learn new things — sometimes that’s good, and sometimes that’s bad. But if people are going to study popular media, it might be good to study them in the same way, so we have a better understanding of whether they have the same effects on us. Science is one of the ways we can combat this idea that certain media are beneficial and certain ones aren’t.

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