Friday, July 2, 2010

Guest Post: The Literature on Literature

Full public disclaimer: I am a lightweight in the world of scientific reading. Science can be fun, though—the Periodic Table and the Krebs Cycle notwithstanding. And I especially like science when it reinforces what I want to believe anyway (see disclaimer above).

For example—I have a co-worker who posts all the scientific studies showing the health benefits of coffee, just above the coffee maker at work. While I stand there waiting for my cuppa to brew, I read about how I am keeping Parkinson's disease at bay (here, from JAMA), reducing my chances of developing diabetes (here from The Lancet), and generally waking up (you don't need a medical reference on this).

So as a lifelong fiction lover, it is not surprising that I am also interested in the neuroscience that continues to grow around reading—why it feels good and why it’s good for you. Below are the highlights, based on my science-lite review of the literature.

Reading literature makes you smarter.

Here's one thing those wild and crazy scientists did: They took a group of unsuspecting people and had them read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—“a disturbing and surreal tale in which a doctor travels by 'unearthly horses' to an ill patient, only to climb into bed naked with him and then escape through the window ‘naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages.'" They took another similarly innocent group and gave them “The Country Doctor” rewritten in a way such that the plot made more sense. THEN they made both groups take a test to assess their pattern recognition. Guess who did better?

“People who read the nonsensical story checked off more letter strings—clearly they were motivated to find structure," said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSB and co-author of the research. "But what's more important is that they were actually more accurate than those who read the more normal version of the story. They really did learn the pattern better than the other participants did.

Proulx said that the thinking behind the research was that when we are exposed to something which "fundamentally does not make sense," our brains will respond by "looking for some other kind of structure" within our environment."

Reading literature makes you more socially savvy.

Okay, next experiment. Readers were randomly assigned either a fiction story OR a non-fiction article from The New Yorker. Both groups were then given an analytical reasoning task in a multiple choice format (derived from a law school entrance exam) and a social reasoning test in the same format, with questions focused on the emotions, beliefs and intentions of characters in social scenarios. The result: The two sets of readers did just as well on the general reasoning questions, but the short-story readers showed a stronger understanding of social situations than the essay readers.

Why? Here’s the opinion of Keith Oatley, a professor at the University of Toronto who has done a lot of work in this field:

“My colleagues and I think it’s a matter of expertise. Fiction is principally about the difficulties of selves navigating the social world. Non-fiction is about, well, whatever it is about: selfish genes, or how to make Mediterranean food, or whether climate changes will harm our planet. So with fiction we tend to become more expert at empathizing and socializing.”

Reading gets your kids into college.

I’m not dumping on Stanley Kaplan or Saturday lessons with Dmitri, the Russian math genius, but independent reading seems to be the best way to boost those SAT scores. Here's what the American Library Association says (not that they have a dog in this fight or anything): “The amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to growth in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information. Students who read independently become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas, and have greater content knowledge than those who do not.”

Reading Relaxes.

Maybe you think you need a masseuse and a steam room, or a martini and a sunset, but it turns out that the key to relaxation is RIGHT THERE ON YOUR BEDSTAND! Yet another group of cash-hungry underemployed individuals was recruited. These unfortunate people were deliberately stressed—forced to fill out 1040s in iambic pentameter or had their iPhones extracted and buried in an undisclosed location or... something. (If you're a mouse, they drop you in a pail of water and make you swim, because it turns out mice hate to swim.) THEN, having thoroughly stressed everyone out, the researchers randomized the subjects to some form of relatively relaxing activity. Like sipping a cup of tea. Or going for a walk. Or listening to music. Or reading a book.

And which activity worked the best and fastest according to those super-smart cognitive neuropsychologists? Reading.

It works better and faster than other methods to calm frazzled nerves such as listening to music, going for a walk or settling down with a cup of tea...

Psychologists believe this is because the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction of being taken into a literary world eases the tensions in muscles and the heart.

Their stress levels and heart rate were increased through a range of tests and exercises before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.

Reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent, said cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis.

Subjects only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in the muscles, he found. In fact it got subjects to stress levels lower than before they started.

Listening to music reduced the levels by 61 per cent, having a cup of tea or coffee lowered them by 54 per cent and taking a walk by 42 per cent.

Playing video games brought them down by 21 per cent from their highest level but still left the volunteers with heart rates above their starting point.

Dr Lewis, who conducted the test, said: "Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation."

So, grab yourself a book. And a cup of coffee. And some chocolate. (Did we talk about the chocolate literature yet?)

Kathy Crowley's short stories have appeared in a handful of (VERY discriminating) literary magazines and even an anthology or two. She practices medicine on the side and has just completed her first novel. She is a member of the writing blog Beyond the Margins (


  1. This is fantasic! I will be completely not-stressed this weekend. I wonder what your stress reduction level is if you're listening to a book on audio WHILE walking? Comatose?

  2. Great post! I printed it out for my nonreading scientific son...

  3. Very good post--much food for thought.

    And useful, too: Hey, everyone, read my stories---you'll be well-rested geniuses in no time!

  4. These are all good, but the part on looking for patterns makes so much sense to me. It's how we navigate the world, and it just seems intuitive that if we do an exercise where we read something without an obvious pattern, we'll try to piece one together anyway, and this will make it easier for us to find patterns in the rest of the world.

  5. Very interesting and enlightening stuff! Thanks for sharing it!

  6. Thanks to all for reading and for your comments.

  7. A PERFECTLY WONDERFUL POST! Thank you, Kathy!!

  8. Oh, man, I'll be directing so many people to this post. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

  9. I don't really care about the other reasons, but I've been a follower of Reading Relaxes for years. Books were my escape route from tween life and my doorway into broader society. Fiction has been the best way for me to bleed off frustration and anger and lift my spirits. Even though I don't read for the escape so much anymore, I still love my books.

  10. Great post, Kathy! I actually do a blog on psychology and reading, so I'm looking forward to diving into those links.

  11. Great post. Very interesting to see the evidence from scientists for what we readers already know to be true. :-))