10 January 2014

Okay, books matter...now what?

More research showing that reading changes peoples' brains, as reported in the Atlantic Monthly. Gotta love that!  Let nothing I say below undermine this simple truth: people doing hard science about the benefits of reading literature deserve showers of grant funding and rivers of citations.

The trained humanist brain has a well-honed pleasure-center override: if something makes you too happy, it's time to start critiquing it.  So of course, I want to know more:

  • Emory undergraduates willing to read a novel and take several MRIs are already a pretty specialized group.  And there are only 21 of them in the study.  What happens to the brains of people who aren't already students?  People who don't have the verbal skills to make the cut at Emory?  People grappling with harder (or easier) reads than Harris's Pompeii
  • Here's what happens when Emory undergraduates read fiction: 
    “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,” said Gregory Berns, the lead author of the study. “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.” 
    Do we know that this biological effect doesn't happen with other forms of interactive engagement?  What about watching movies, playing narrative video games, writing fanfiction? 
  • What does this information mean for those of us who make a living getting people to read literature?  It seems generally to be the case that more neural activity makes people smarter, but is there more going on here than the intellectual version of a half-hour of aerobic exercise?  Can more specific claims be made about how long fictional narratives make you smarter?   


  1. MRI scans were needed to figure this out?

  2. Of course something is happening "biologically"; any thought or experience involves some sort of physiological events. So glad this managed to soak up some grant money.