Does Reading Literature Actually Make Us Smarter?

April 2, 2014

This is anything but a dead issue today with so many millions of people out of work. Even those with advanced degrees. No small thanks to the national fixation on all these jobless individuals desperately searching for good jobs, there have been many writers, pundits, and producers who have openly denigrated the study of humanities and urged young people to choose more “prac tical” courses of study, degreed programs sanctified by high job placement.

So, are the humanities doomed? Obsolete? Irrelevant in our cyber world? Is there anything at all practical about reading literature?

Knowing of my interest in this subject, Dr. Rosanne Vrugtman sent me Annie Murphy Paul’s splendid response to these questions. Her title includes two additional words:

“Does Reading Literature Make Us Smarter and Nicer?”

Let’s see what she has to say on the subject:

“Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, recently argued in the New York Times that we ought not to claim that literature improves us as people, because there is no “compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy” or other great books.

“Actually, there is such evidence. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.

“‛Deep reading’ – as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web – is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.

“Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading – slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity – is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions – Should I click on this link or not? – allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

“That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.

“None of this is likely to happen when we’re scrolling through TMZ. Although we call the activity by the same name, the deep reading of books and the information-driven reading we do on the Web are very different, both in the experience they produce and in the capacities they develop. A growing body of evidence suggests that online reading may be less engaging and less satisfying, even for the “digital natives” for whom it is so familiar. Last month, for example, Britain’s National Literacy Trust released the results of a study of 34,910 young people aged 8 to 16.

“Researchers reported that 39% of children and teens read daily using electronic devices, but only 28% read printed materials every day. Those who read only onscreen were three times less likely to say they enjoy reading very much and a third less likely to have a favorite book. The study also found that young people who read daily only onscreen were nearly two times less likely to be above-average readers than those who read daily in print or both in print and onscreen.

“To understand why we should be concerned about how young people read, and not just whether they’re reading at all, it helps to know something about the way the ability to read evolved. “Human beings were never born to read,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Unlike the ability to understand and produce spoken language, which under normal circumstances will unfold according to a program dictated by our genes, the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual. The “reading circuits” we construct are recruited from structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes – and these circuits can be feeble or they can be robust, depending on how often and how vigorously we use them.

“The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.

“This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe carnal reading is all there is – if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice – we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter.

“And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people. Observing young people’s attachment to digital devices, some progressive educators and permissive parents talk about needing to “meet kids where they are,” molding instruction around their onscreen habits. This is mistaken. We need, rather, to show them someplace they’ve never been, a place only deep reading can take them”.

Taken from a “Brilliant Report,” a weekly newsletter written by Murphy Paul

Published in: on April 2, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for this, Dr. Joe.

  2. So glad you shared this, Joe. I found the article fascinating. As an English major in my undergraduate program (and as a life-long habit since then), I have spent many enriching hours reading the classics. I recently found myself at B&N and as I wandered past a display of classic works, I started going through the titles and ticking them off in my head: “Read it! Read it! Read it!” Three rows of books and I realized I had read all but 2-3 of them–plus many more that weren’t in the display. Some more than once.

    Bt the way, the display included “Two Years Before the Mast,” which was the topic of one of your recent posts. What a fascinating book! I wondered how many X-gen’s have read it of will ever do so…

    Made me very sad to think that most students today–including college-age students–probably have not and will never enjoy the classic works. Made me want to grab all of the joy sticks and electronic gizmos out of children’s hands so I could put a put there instead. “NOW READ! EXPAND! ENJOY!” I would shout at them. “USE YOUR BLESSED IMAGINATION!”


    Dr. Rosanne Vrugtman

  3. Excellent post, Rosanne!! Agree with all Dr. Wheeler said too.

  4. Awesome. Loved the article and now understand why I love to read and always have. It takes me to places never seen and gives me so much information I never would have known. I am just ending “Quo Vadis” and am reeling with emotion. Thanks so much for sharing Dr. Joe.

  5. Kathleen: So happy to share. My own mother was the oldest of 15 children and only got to go to school through the 2nd grade. She taught herself to read (by reading Zane Grey, among others!) and inspired her own five children with a love for reading by reading to us. I’ve been averaging 5-6 books a week for the past year, a little less when I’m reading really long works like “Pillars of the Earth” and such.

    Julie: I felt that same “reeling” thing after reading “Gone with the Wind” and “The Robe” and a select few other books. Hard to define or describe precisely, but I was transported out of myself. I identified so closely with the story and the characters that, for a little while at least, I felt as though I were part of another era instead of my own. I grieved that the books had ended and wanted to read on. That’s a feeling the nonreader is never going to experience or understand, I suspect.


  6. My grandchildren thankfully all love to read and have been going weekly to the library to get books since before they could read—my daughters read to them and now they read for themselves.

  7. About a year ago I bought a Kindle so that I could read some of David Smith’s online books. However, I prefer an actual book in my hand. It definitely helps me feel closer to the author. There is really nothing like the printed page, but I fear some day it will become obsolete.

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