This Is Your Brain on Books

By Seth Studer

neurolinguisticsEarlier this week, OnFiction published the results of a recent study on the biological effects of reading fiction. Researchers at Emory University used MRI scanners to track the brain activity of nineteen participants, all reading the same novel (Robert Harris’s historical thriller Pompeii). The researchers focused on “functional connectivity,” the degree to which activity in one region of the brain prompts or correlates with activity in another region. Basically, your brain’s ability to talk to itself. Participants’ brains were scanned while reading, immediately after reading, and five days after completing the novel. OnFiction described the results:

[The researchers] identified a number of brain networks that got stronger (i.e., the different regions became more closely associated) during the reading period. They also uncovered a network of brain regions that became more robust over the reading period but also appeared to persist after the participants had finished reading. Although this network got weaker over time after the reading period, the correlations between the brain regions in this network were still stronger than those observed prior to the reading period.

Conclusion? Surprise, reading makes you smarter! Or, reading helps your brain make neurological connections more briskly. Those non-adjacent neurons that light up while you’re reading Starship Troopers are potentially responsible for language and comprehension skills (kinda seems obvious, right?), but the researchers aren’t sure yet: the brain remains too dense and mysterious to definitively map. So some of those neurons might be responsible for something totally unrelated to language but related to fiction-processing. Which, for literary scholars, would be awesome to learn about.

Either way: when you read, your brain lights up.

The Emory study focuses on neurological responses to a single novel. But earlier this month, OnFiction reported another study that seemed to demonstrate a measurable difference between “literary fiction” and pulp: a difference many literary scholars spent thirty or more years dismissing. Two psychologists at the New School for Social Research gave readers a randomly assigned texts – some “highbrow,” others “lowbrow,” others nonfiction – and afterward measured the reader’s ability to empathize with others (aka “Theory of Mind”). Participants who read a highbrow text were consistently more empathetic than participants who read the lowbrow text.

In other words, if you need a ruthless hitman, don’t hire the one reading Anna Karenina.

The results of this study were published in Science and discussed on NPR’s All Things Considered. You can hear the audio clip or read the transcript here (I recommend listening to the audio, to experience the full effect of the Danielle Steele/Louise Erdrich pairing).

Gregory Burns, team leader of the first study, is a neuroscientist who has used neurological approaches to economics and sociology. Now he has his eyes on literary analysis. But lit scholars are traditionally wary of theories and methods that appear too positivist, empirical, or quantitative. (Celebrity scientists who condescend and prescribe cures for the humanities without really understanding what humanists actually do aren’t helping.) Much of this wariness comes from decades of disciplinary isolation: C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” Some of it comes from the academic turf wars and ideological disputes of the 1980s. In the late ’90s, something like Franco Moretti’s amazing Literary Lab would’ve had to been developed slowly and with care, so as not to cause too much of a ruckus. Add a dash of quantitative reasoning in one article, use a database in another, publish a groundbreaking polemic, ensure that you already have tenure and academic fame, and now you’re ready to be semi-empirical without overwhelming backlash!

Of course, so much has changed since the early 2000s. The so-called “Digital Humanities” (a term that seems to mean everything and nothing) has made statistics ‘n’ stuff more palatable to humanists, and the pioneering work of scholars like Nicholas Dames has made science less scary. Today, you can’t go to a literature conference now without a panel on cognitive science and another on economic theory. The “two cultures” are intermingling, beginning with the social sciences, which overlap with humanist concerns more explicitly than, say, physics does. But the studies featured on OnFiction this week should not be dismissed. They aren’t perfect, but their methodologies offer rigorous and robust approaches to literary experience.

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