What is the value of an English literature class — could you read on your own time and experience the same benefits? In a recent interdisciplinary collaboration between Stanford neurobiologists and assistant English professor Natalie Phillips, researchers used the Jane Austen classic Mansfield Park to investigate how the type of critical reading taught in most English classes may alter brain activation patterns.
Casual versus critical reading
As a longtime literary scholar, Phillips had always been interested in how reading literature could shape how people viewed the world. From anecdotal evidence, at least, it seemed as if the type of critical textual analysis taught in classrooms heightened attention when compared to casual reading.
To test this theory, Phillips and researchers from the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging used an fMRI machine to scan the brains of 18 participants as they read a chapter from Austen’s Mansfield Park. First, the participants were asked to read the chapter casually, as they would for fun. Then they were asked to switch to close reading, a common term for the type of scrutiny to detail and form required to analyze text in a literary course. To ensure that participants could successfully switch between these two modes of reading, all participants were PhD candidates pursuing literary degrees.
Researchers observed a significant shift in brain activity patterns as the PhD students went from casual to critical modes. Critical reading increased bloodflow across the brain in general, and specifically to the prefrontal cortex.
Executive function and the brain
The prefrontal cortex is known to play a role in executive function, which refers to a set of higher-order cognitive processes that manage how you divide your attention and coordinate complex activities. Phillips and her team posit that executive function may help explain the observed changes in participants’ brains.
This field of “literary neuroscience” is a new one, and Phillips hopes that these preliminary results will lead to further research on how reading can shape and shift cognition. Though it’s still too early to understand exactly what the future of this new branch of research holds, Phillips suggests that critical reading could one day be seen as a valuable tool in “teaching us to modulate our concentration.”
Original article was at Lumosity Brain solutions