Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Epigenetics and Enhanced Brain Connectivity from Reading a Good Book

These are actually from two separate series of studies --- and the former technically is referring to a single study --- but they have in common that they're both really interesting and both with strong connections to neuroscience (which of course has tons of cool things up its sleeves).

Epigenetics sounds like science fiction, and it includes behavioral epigenetics, which refers to genetic experiences that an animal (including humans) can have based on experiences of their ancestors. (You may be interested in the wikipedia entry on epigenetics.) It is also easy to see why this is a controversial subject.

Meanwhile, it was demonstrated in a recent study that brain connectivity (in the resting state) can increase for 5 days after reading an engaging novel. The popular article to which I have linked indicates that "function" increases, but it is a leap to go from the conclusion of increasing connectivity (which one can measure, e.g., using tools from network analysis) to that of increasing function. I only looked at the paper very briefly, but from a scientific perspective I am currently much more comfortable claiming the former than the latter. Note, however, that this is very consistent with loads of anecdotal evidence and what many people have claimed about their own reading experiences for a very long time. I view it as somewhat akin to exercise and do think the strong form of the big-picture conclusion to be pretty damn likely (and the result is both sensible and intuitive), but the bar for scientific comfort naturally must be very high (and obviously is much higher than what intuitively I believe to be valid).

(Tip of the cap to Stephen Heise for neurological tips on reading a good book and to Susan Baldry Dole --- Stephen's friend on Facebook --- for posting the link to the popular article on behavioral epigenetics.)

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