Researchers observe the brain patterns of test subjects reading a Jane Austen novel. The fMRI images suggest that literary reading provides a valuable exercise of people's brains
"As it happened, as it was meant to happen, Bokonon would say..." (Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut) while researching what appears to be a significant discrepancy between the steady progress being made in raising global literacy levels and the indications that there is at the same time a noticeable decline in enthusiasm for literary reading, I stumbled across this thought-provoking report by Corrie Goldman of The Stanford Humanities Center.
Picked up by populist press sources such as PopSci (http://goo.gl/TCDMy) who reduce the significance of the findings to a snarky headline "Science Confirms the Obvious" in huge font size followed by a significantly smaller sub-head "Reading might make you smarter, but it also gives your brain a cognitive workout that it doesn't otherwise get" and Huff Post (http://goo.gl/SezTf), where the more honest large headline, "Why Reading is Good for your Brain" nevertheless immediately stoops to levels of "snarkitude" matching that of PopSci's by inviting readers to pre-judge the finding negatively with this sarcastic lead paragraph...
"This just in: Reading books is good for your brain! In other news, the world is round, Obama is the president, and Jonathan Franzen loves birds."
Pandering to the general public aside, the article confirms a neurobiological benefit to literary reading that may be a cause for revisiting current practice among educators fighting the good fight on behalf of literary reading.
The study focuses upon "the relationship between reading, attention and distraction..." in other words, reading attentively and reading casually as in when one "...leisurely skim(s) a passage as they might do in a bookstore..."
I couldn't help wondering if in addition to the reduced attention of casual reading, that a parallel lessening of attention might be found in what I think of as the "misdirected attention" of student reading caused by excess attention upon the "will-this-be-on-the-quiz?"focus in order to pass a "did-you-do-last-night's-reading" surprise quizzes which are generally designed as little more than easy plot questions that one would know if he or she read the assignment. This type of quiz falls somewhere between being little more than a behavior management strategy attempting to pressure the reluctant to do what they don't want to do and leading even the some of the brightest students to value passing quizzes over actually engaging in the literary value of a book's themes.
I also found the article interesting in pointing out the warning of Dr. Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project, that we be cautious about "adopting a kind of historical nostalgia, or assuming those of the 18th century were less distracted than we are today."
The article continues, "Many Enlightenment writers, Phillips noted, were concerned about how distracted readers were becoming 'amidst the print-overload of 18th-century England.'"
As I contemplated the neurobiological benefits of literary reading at the core of the study and their potential implications upon "best practices" in the area of literary reading that fall between basic literacy and scholarly study; that area where the benefits of one's reading habits reach the vast majority of literary readers, I began to wonder whether the study results might also lead to an investigation of what might be either an actual or metaphorical neurobiological (or psychological) atrophy. If as is the case in muscular atrophy caused by lack of of use as is the case when, for example, one spends significant time with an arm in a cast, a significant time period passes where the "...blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for "executive function," areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, ..." has been limited, might there be a cumulative negative impact? And if so, might that negative impact have long-term, perhaps even irreversible consequences?
In my "limited experience" of having taught literature at the high school level for 38 years, I have seen both what appears to be a decline in enthusiasm for literary reading, and at the same time great success in assisting reluctant high school readers in overcoming such reluctance through strategies focused upon helping them to discover relevance to the world they live in and care about.