Researchers at the Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.
The study focused on the lingering neural effects of reading a narrative. Twenty-one undergraduate students participated in the experiment, which was conducted over 19 consecutive days.
All of the study subjects read the same novel, 'Pompeii' - a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.
For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state.
Then they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning.
After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state.
After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.
The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments.
"Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity," said neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study.
"We call that a 'shadow activity,' almost like a muscle memory," said Berns.
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.
"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 said.
The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns said, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.
The study was published by the journal Brain Connectivity.