I can't tell you the number of times I've visited a coworking space or other such entrepreneur hangout and seen cult favorites like Lean Startup, ReWork, and Lean In fill the shelves.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Nonfiction has its place, and plenty of people have felt more educated and inspired after reading books like these.

However, a new study suggests that you shouldn't rule out another genre of book, since it can make a positive impact on you neurologically. What genre, you ask?

Fiction.

Yes, while it may feel counterintuitive to read something where you're not getting hard "facts," according to the Emory University's Center for Neuropolicy, the hard fact is that reading fiction is really good for your brain.

To measure the effect of stories on the brain, researchers took resting-state fMRI scans of the brains of study participants. They then asked them to read sections of the thriller book Pompeii by Robert Harris every night for nine days.

Follow-up scans showed heightened connectivity in their brains on mornings after reading. Specifically, agumented connectivity was seen in their left temporal cortex, an area linked with language comprehension, and the central sulcus, an area associated with sensations and movement.

That second one was something the researchers weren't expecting. According to lead author of the study, Dr. Berns, "[The] posterior (rear) bank contains neurons that receive sensory input from the parts of the body. Enhanced connectivity here was a surprise finding, but it implies that, perhaps, the act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist."

Read that again: he's saying that reading a novel can make you feel like you are actually in someone else's shoes.

It works like this: In the same way an athlete simply visualizing playing their sport will activate real neurons in their brain associated with physically playing the sport, "just" reading may actually help people feel like they are truly experiencing what the main character is in a story.

This matters, because according to neuroscience, it strengthens your "theory of mind" -- and you want to do that.

Theory of mind refers to your ability to truly understand both your own and other people's mental states, including thoughts, beliefs, emotions, intentions, and desires. It also extends to how those states influence behavior: What does this person want? How is s/he feeling? What is s/he going to do next, and why?

Truly great leaders often have strong theory of mind, as they are able to intuit the emotional states of others and how that will impact things. For example, good managers have a strong sense of how their team is doing, including its individual members. They can prevent issues, strengthen collaboration, and motivate correctly because they understand what's truly going on. Human interaction is a critical part of nearly every industry, and those skilled at it tend to excel.

Significantly, the researchers also found that reading fiction left lasting effects on the brain. Dr. Berns said, "[R]eading stories--especially those with strong narrative arcs--reconfigures brain networks ... It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains."

Humans have told stories for thousands of years. Maybe the reason why is hard-wired.

In case you need a reading list to get started, here are the New York Times' picks for the best novels of 2016:

  1. The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan
  2. The North Water, by Ian McGuire
  3. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  4. The Vegetarian, by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith
  5. War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans and translated by David McKay

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"Books are a uniquely portable magic." ― Stephen King

Published on: Jan 31, 2017
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