For thousands of years, stories have been told through the pages of a book. But with the advent of new technologies, the ways humans communicate their memories, discoveries, recipes, and life lessons have increasingly been captured and retold through a variety of mediums, one of the most revolutionary being the television. In the years since 1927, when the first TV set flickered to life before viewers’ eyes, what have we learned about its effects on the human brain? Are we better or worse off with visual storytelling?

Researchers have devoted innumerable hours to studying how TV affects our brains differently than reading. The prevalence of smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and computers has added new meaning to the term “screen time,” and scientists are still working to compile a growing body of research to untangle the copious ways in which storytelling affects our brain’s neural pathways, both in the short run and permanently.  

Television Books Watching television can change the way the human brain makes connections, while books enhance neural pathways. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Television

The average American home has 2.86 TV sets, which is 43 percent more than each home had in 1990. Nearly one out of every five children in the U.S. has a television in their bedroom, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that the average child under 8 years old spends more than 90 minutes a day watching TV or DVDs.

In 2013, a team of researchers from Ohio State University interviewed and tested 107 preschoolers and their parents to see how television impacted a child’s theory of mind. The more a child watched television or was exposed to television, even if it was playing in the background, the weaker their understanding of their parents’ mental state. Ultimately, if the television was on in the vicinity of the child, it impaired their theory of mind, which is defined as the ability to recognize their own and another person’s beliefs, intents, desires, and knowledge.

"Children with more developed theories of mind are better able to participate in social relationships,” said the study’s lead researcher Amy Nathanson, a communications professor at Ohio State University, in a statement. “These children can engage in more sensitive, cooperative interactions with other children and are less likely to resort to aggression as a means of achieving goals."

A more recent study from 2015, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, revealed watching too much TV could actually alter the composition of the human brain.  When researchers studied 276 children between the ages of 5 and 18, they discovered the more time spent in front of the TV, the thicker the frontal lobe region of their brains developed. It’s the same area that is known to lower language processing and communication, which researchers suspect is also why they had a lower verbal IQ. But that wasn’t all; the hypothalamus, septum, sensory motor region, and visual cortex were all enlarged — these are where emotional responses, arousal, aggression, and vision are processed.

It may be why increased TV exposure for children under the age of three is linked to delayed language acquisition, which sets them up for years of playing catch up in school. When it comes to school, children who sit in front of the TV for two or more hours a day are more likely to have greater psychological difficulties, which include hyperactivity, emotional and behavioral problems, and social conflicts with peers in the classroom.

Books

For some, opening up the pages of a book is like entering into another world and leaving the old one behind. In fact, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found 15 percent of readers do so to escape and explore their inner imaginations. Meanwhile 26 percent of those who read a book said they enjoyed learning, gaining knowledge, and discovering information.

But aside from pleasure and practicality, reading strengthens the neural pathways like any muscle in your body. Even at a young age, children who are read to by their parents develop five enhanced reading skills, which include an advanced vocabulary, word recognition in spoken words, ability to connect written letters to spoken sounds, reading comprehension, and the fluency to read text accurately and quickly.  

Reading Books Books can transport its readers into the plot, where their brain remains for days afterwards. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Despite the benefits, it’s estimated that 42 percent of college graduates will never pick up another book after they earn their degrees. But just because their brains are technically finished developing doesn’t mean they don’t need to read any more.  A study, conducted by a team of researchers from Emory University, revealed that books can stimulate changes in how the brain is connected, which causes the reader to have lingering feelings from the story, such as a heightened sense of excitement from reading a page-turner.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” said the study’s lead author neuroscientist Gregory Berns, director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, in a statement. “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.”

For the study, researchers recruited a group of participants and scanned their brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to track the activity inside different regions of their brain. For five consecutive days, participants’ brains were scanned to measure their resting state. Each participant was asked to read the book “Pompeii” in the evenings for nine straight days and their brains were scanned the following morning. In the story, the protagonist (lead character) sees a volcano erupt while outside of the city and tries to get back in order to save the woman he loves, but then confronts the devastation left in the volcano’s wake. Researchers chose the book because of its strong plot and engaging perspective from the narrative.

Afterwards, participants were scanned again for five days following the conclusion of their reading period. Even though the study’s participants were not reading the book while they were being scanned, their brains still retained the same level of connectivity.

“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, ” Berns explained. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Researchers believe this prolonged and measurable brain boost, which was found in the region associated with language and sensory motor skills, could improve brain connectivity over time. It brings using books as an escape to a whole new level.

Berns concluded: "At a minimum, we can say that reading stories reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains."

Sources: Kawashima R, Takeuchi H, and Taki Y, et al. The Impact of Television Viewing on Brain Structures: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Analyses. Cerebral Cortex. 2016.

Berns GS, Blaine K, Preitula MJ, and Pye BE. Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity . 2016.

Christy K, Nathanson AI, Sharp ML, Alad é F, and Rasmussen EE. The Relation Between Television Exposure and Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers. Journal of Communication . 2016.