Reading literature might make us smarter, depending on what we read. But new research points out that in addition, reading gives the brain a cognitive workout that it doesn’t otherwise get.
The project was led by Natalie Phillips, who received her PhD in English literature at Stanford in 2010 and is now an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University. She wondered what exactly is the value of studying literature. Beyond producing good writers and thinkers, she is interested in “how this training engages the brain.”
She asked a test group of literary PhD candidates to read a chapter of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park inside of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which tracks blood flow in the brain.
The readers were instructed to read in two different ways: as they would read for leisure or pleasure, and as they might read for critical analysis, as if they were trying to comprehend the text for an exam.
Together with a team of cognition and neurobiology experts, Phillips says she found that leisure reading as well as critical reading initiate a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for “executive function.”
The two reading methods provide different kinds of cognitive workouts, both of which constitute “truly valuable exercise of people’s brains,” according to Phillips.
The researchers discovered that when we read, blood flows to brain areas associated with close concentration. That may not surprise you, as reading requires concentration. But they also found that critical reading requires a certain kind of complex cognitive function that we don’t usually employ.
Although further research is needed, Phillips says that teaching close reading (i.e., attention to literary form) “could serve—quite literally—as a kind of cognitive training, teaching us to modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus.”