This Is Your Brain on Reading for Pleasure… This Is It on Reading Seriously

What images or emotions come up for you in your mind when you read the following short sentence from Jane Austen? “We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

Would it surprise you to learn that how you reacted to this sentence might depend on what parts of your brain you were using when reading it, and that that might depend on whether you came to this website looking to read the articles on it for pleasure, or whether you came here to study them, as if for work?

The conclusion of researchers at the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging (CNI), based on early results from a fascinating multi-disciplinary study, is that this is exactly what happens. Depending on whether you are reading for pleasure or doing what is referred to as more “close reading,” different areas of the brain “light up” and become used.

An English Professor runs an MRI machine, in which people read Jane Austen

As unlikely as this may sound, that is exactly the nature of this research. Initially conceived of by Stanford Ph.D. graduate and current English professor at Michigan State University Natalie Phillips, this experiment also requires the expertise of the neuroscientists at CNI. Student volunteers from Stanford’s Ph.D. programs were asked to read passages from Mansfield Park while in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. A computer/mirror arrangement allows them to read the passages without moving. Jane Austen was chosen because her writing can be read either for pleasure or as an object of complex literary analysis; Mansfield Park was chosen because it is the least well known of her works.

Then, before each session, the students were asked to read some of the passages closely and others while in a more relaxed state, as if they were reading for pure pleasure. The latter was characterized as what they do when they immerse themselves in a novel and enjoy it. The former, “close reading,” was characterized as how they would read in a literary classroom, analyzing what they read. To enforce this, students were asked to write short essays about the passages that they had read “for work.”

Both the English professor and the neuroscientists were shocked at what they saw in the fMRI scans. The subjects were using completely different parts of their brains when reading the same passages, depending on whether they were reading them for fun, or for analysis. It was not, the researchers emphasize, as if one mode of reading was “better” than another; it was that they had, from a brain science point of view, two completely different “neurosignatures.”

Both modes of reading “exercise” the brain, but in different ways

Professor Phillips points out that neither of these modes of brain functioning are superior. In fact, the real benefit is that we can switch between them, to train and develop different parts of the brain. In her words, “…cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it.” Reading rigorously and analyzing the ideas presented and even the structure of the language and how the ideas are presented exercises one mode of functioning in our brains, and cultivates that mode. Reading just for the fun of it exercises another mode of functioning, and cultivates it. Both are necessary to see the world around us clearly, from a balanced point of view.

Much more research needs to be done, including fMRI scans of readers to determine how the two different modes of reading affect such things as how they experience emotion arising from what they’re reading. Will those emotions be stronger and affect the person more when reading for pleasure, or for analysis?

But one of the valuable things learned even so far from this research is that each of us has the ability to change the way that our own brains work. We can shift them from one mode of operation to another, just by the intent we bring to our reading. This is a discovery that the neuroscientists relate to work on mindfulness meditation, which has also shown that we can control which areas of our brains “light up” and are used or not used, depending on whether or not they are appropriate for the circumstances. On the literature side of the equation, these experiments may help us to understand the impact that great literature has on us. As Natalie Phillips says, “…give us a bigger, richer picture of how our minds engage with art – or, in our case, of the complex experience we know as literary reading.”

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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