Popular wisdom says the best fiction compels us to lose ourselves in the story, to surrender our identity and take on the persona of the protagonist. A new study from Emory University now confirms the biological basis for this culturally-held phenomenon, as people who all read a particular novel showed the same brain activity several days after reading than they did when still immersed in the novel.

Lead author of the study and director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy, Professor Gregory Berns said the findings should help scientists to deepen their insights into brain behavior. Growing bodies of research have continued to find benefits in reading that go beyond language comprehension skills, most notably its ability to strengthen a person’s sense of empathy.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” Berns, whose team published their results in Brain Connectivity, said in a news release. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain and what they do to it.”

To perform their study, the team recruited 21 people to read the same story, Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris, over the course of 19 days. “The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns explained, adding the strong narrative line of the book was critical to the study. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

People read 30-page excerpts and followed up their assignment with a reading comprehension test (to ensure the homework was completed) the following morning. Then they underwent scans in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, so researchers could take a look at their brain behavior. After reading all nine desired sections of the novel, the subjects returned for five additional days of scans to examine any lasting effects.

The follow-up tests showed sustained activity in the bilateral somatosensory cortex, an area of the brain in charge of proprioception and touch. The brain’s central sulcus also lit up in fMRI, a region responsible for grounded cognition — a term used to describe the ability to visualize certain actions without performing those actions. Together, these two findings suggested to Berns and his team that reading does actually put you in the mind and body of a main character.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Popular science has long known the benefits of reading — if they didn’t, literacy wouldn’t have nearly the import attached to it for children’s budding intelligence. But language skills aren’t the whole story when it comes to reading’s benefits. A report released earlier this year showed people who spent extensive time reading fiction were better empathizers. Much like Berns and his team’s findings, the results of the study showed once people transported themselves into the minds of cooked-up characters, their real-world ability to place themselves inside others’ minds became much more natural.

Last year, a team of psychologists found that people subconsciously become their favorite fictional characters. In turn, that opens people up to being more empathetic as well. When the researchers tested heterosexual subjects’ attitudes toward a homosexual character after telling the subjects he was gay, an experimental group called the “gay-late” narrative group, the subjects relied on far fewer stereotypes to describe the character — using less effeminate and emotional descriptions than the “gay-early” group. It was the assumption of the character’s identity, the team concluded, that allowed the reader to fill his shoes unbiasedly.

"The more you're reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you'll be able to take on a character's identity," Geoff Kaufman, lead author of the study and researcher at Dartmouth College’s Tiltfactor Laboratory, said in a news release. "You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character's identity."

Source: Berns G, Blaine K, Prietula M, Pye B. Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity. 2013.