Discovered: Emotional engagement with fiction boosts real-world empathy; a new MRI video of a fetal brain; Siberia's permafrost is thawing too quickly; a microchip that restores vision.

Fiction as an empathy workout. What makes bookworms such bleeding hearts? A new study led by P. Matthijs Bal of VU University in the Netherlands finds that readers who emotionally immerse themselves with written fiction for weeklong periods can help boost their empathetic skills. The researchers discovered this by having university students read either fiction by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and José Saramago or items from a newspaper. Gauging the participants' empathetic abilities and self-reported emotions before and after such reading sessions, they found that the fiction readers got more of an emotional workout than the nonfiction readers. And they became noticeably more empathetic after a week of such experiments. [PLoS Blogs]

This is the first fMRI video of a human fetal brain. The video below, taken by Wayne State University's Moriah Thomason, is the first fMRI footage we have of a human fetus' brain as it develops in the womb. Such technology allowed Thomason to determine the timeline of neural development for fetuses. Researchers think such information could help doctors diagnose conditions like schizophrenia and autism before birth, opening up a whole can of bioethical worms.  The new footage follows last year's unveiling of the first MRI video to capture a baby's brain while the baby was being born. [New Scientist]

Siberia's permafrost is melting. New research in Siberian caves shows that the permafrost in Russia's chilly northernmost region is melting quicker than we thought. A new paper in Science put together by an international team of researchers finds that the "permafrost frontier" is set to thaw as a 1.5 Celsius temperature increase in the near future. "As permafrost covers 24% of the land surface of the Northern Hemisphere, significant thawing could affect vast areas and release (billions of tonnes) of carbon," the University of Oxford's Anton Vaks says. The researchers find that as much as a trillion tons of greenhouse gases would be released into the atmosphere if climate change progresses undeterred. [BBC News]

Vision via microchip. A week after the FDA approved the first bionic device that provides vision to the blind, a German medical technology company called Retina Implants says that it has developed a microchip that provides limited vision to some blind people without external devices. The microchip would be wirelessly controlled, and would allow people with certain types of inherited blindness to perceive light, roughly detect objects, and in some cases read letters. "The very personal things, such as if a mouth is smiling, or the shape of a nose, are the most exciting for them," says lead researcher Katarina Stigl of the University of Tubingen, describing the eight out of nine patients who successfully saw things in clinical trials with the microchip. [MIT Technology Review]