Science Confirms the Obvious: Literature is Good for Your Brain

Reading might make you smarter, but it also gives your brain a cognitive workout that it doesn't otherwise get

In news that probably isn’t going to blow your mind, researchers have found that reading is good for your brain. But it’s not as straightforward as “book learnin’ is good for you.” By asking a test group of literary PhD candidates to read a Jane Austin novel inside of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a Stanford researcher has found that critical, literary reading and leisure reading provide different kinds of neurological workouts, both of which constitute “truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.”

The study was conducted under the supervision of cognition and neurobiology experts at Stanford, but it is the brainchild of literary English scholar Natalie Phillips, who was interested in figuring out exactly what the value of studying literature is. Aside from the pursuit of literary knowledge and the aspects of culture, history, and the humanities that are tied up in our collected written works, does reading impart any kind of tangible benefit to us as humans?

It turns out it does, at least in terms of where blood flows in our brains when we engage it in reading. The experiments were structured so that subjects inside the fMRI machine could reap a chapter from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park projected onto a mirror inside the machine. 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.

The fMRI machine allows the researchers to see blood flowing through the brain, and what they found was intriguing: when we read, blood flows to regions of the brain beyond the ones responsible for executive functions. Rather, it flows to areas associated with close concentration. That may not seem so odd–reading requires concentration–but they also found that critical, close reading requires a certain kind of complex cognitive function that we don’t usually employ. Both styles of reading, the researchers say, initiate kinds of cognitive function that go beyond simple “work” and “play.”

Moreover, the study showed that simply by asking the readers to alter their method of reading–from “leisure” to “analytical”–they could drastically alter the patterns of neural activity and blood flow within their brains. The study could have implications in the way reading affects the brain and how we train our brains to be better at things like concentration and comprehension. In the meantime, it confirms something that you’ve known to be true since your first-grade teachers told you so: reading is good for your brain.