Using Your Brain and Having Fun at the Same Time: How Reading Keeps Those Gray Cells Active

family readingI always have to chuckle up my sleeve every time someone reveals—ta da!—how reading is good for you. Readers obsessed with books have known this forever. Still people regularly conduct studies, write articles, and send information out to the world on the subject. However, one I ran across recently, “This is your brain on Jane Austen—the neuroscience of reading great literature,” drew my attention because I’m a Janeite, a fan of all things Austen. I’m in favor of anything that can be done to increase her readership.

This particular research had a special slant. Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips, in collaboration with Stanford’s Center for Cognitive and Biological Imaging, studied readers’ brains when perusing pleasure reading and close reading. Close reading stimulates more areas of the brain than casual. So it could be that my ingesting dozens of romances as fast as my eyes can move for sheer entertainment isn’t as good for my brain as studying their plots and language in depth.

The “ah-ha” approach to brain research with its sense of discovery occurs every five years or so, especially in regard to kids and books. Since at least the 1980s, researchers have found children who are read to and familiar with books from infancy have a strong foundation, not only for learning in school, but also for personal adjustment and satisfaction. Yet we trot out statistics over and over, as if someone is arguing against us.

I guess what my father taught me to say as a tiny child is true: the ontogeny is the epitome of phylogeny. I didn’t know I was absorbing by rote Ernst Haeckel’s recapitulation theory. The history of the egg is like the history of the race. Or the development of an individual to maturity resembles the growth over time of a group. In this case, yes, society must realize over and over that reading is good for the brain and the soul just as a person can have this discovery.

There’s more. Content of the reading material affects the brain in different ways. It activates sections related to movement and touch, as if people were putting themselves into the story. Smell, taste, sight are not exempt. Fantasy like Harry Potter seems to produce neural reactions that are above and beyond those created by other narratives. Interesting that the content of the reading material affects the brain in different ways.

I’m not sure what studies have been launched in regard to pornography, but we probably already know what it activates.

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