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New brain research suggesting TV watching produces bad changes, novels good ones

A young child watched
A young child watched "Planet Earth" on television.
jyoseph/Flickr Creative Commons

Too much television can alter a child’s brain structure – and not in a positive way – according to a new study out of Japan.

Researchers from Tohoku University studied 276 children aged  5 -18 who watched between zero and four hours of TV daily. They found those who watched more TV experienced greater alterations to their brain structure and exhibited a lower IQ over time.

Through MRI scans of the children’s brains, researchers discovered children who watched more television had more grey matter in the area at the front of the frontal lobe -  but it correlated to a lower IQ.

Published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the research team described its investigation as the first ever into “brain structural development associated with TV viewing.” The authors cautioned the findings are not definitive proof that TV damages the brain.

Meanwhile, a separate study out of Emory University found that reading a novel lead to positive changes in the brain.

Studying fMRIs of college students who were given Robert Harris’ “Pompeii” to read, researchers found heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortexes (associated with language receptivity) after reading that lasted five days after completing the book.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate potential long-lasting effects on the brain from reading fiction. Participants were given a brain scan daily before reading the assigned novel, they were scanned during the course of the reading, and they were given an fMRI for five days after completing the reading.

“Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” study author, Gregory Berns told Emory University website press. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

The Emory website reported that:

“Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“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 says. “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.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”