In the Lab: Reading good

Whether you read for pleasure, or read because you’ll fail a course if you don’t, the act of analysing and interpreting text is good for your brain. It might not come as a surprise; advocates of book-learning have long asserted that reading makes you smarter. Now, though, there is some neuroscience to back up those claims.

When neuroscientists want to determine the effects of an activity on the brain, they will make use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines. These large, electromagnetic donuts can detect and image the flow of blood through the brain. If a particular area of the brain ‘lights up’ on the MRI readout, it can be assumed that that area of the brain is being used in whatever activity the subject is participating in. Volunteers have done a vast array of things in MRI machines over the years, including improvising jazz, masturbating, performing simple mathematics, meditating, sleeping, and dreaming. A recent study at Stanford University has seen volunteers reading a chapter of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park while having their brains monitored by an MRI machine.

In this experiment, participants were first required to read the text as they would if reading for pleasure. This ‘relaxed’ reading produced high levels of activity in areas of the brain associated with close concentration. Remarkably, when participants were asked to read analytically, as though studying for an exam on the material, brain activity ramped up another notch. Complex coordination of a number of cognitive functions was observed during this analytical reading, but the pattern of blood flow differed from the ‘relaxed’ reading. Essentially, reading for leisure and reading for work give your brain two entirely different workouts.

Because these two different types of reading require such different cognitive functions, this research has implications for our understanding of text comprehension skills. It could also go some way to explain why reading for pleasure feels worlds apart from struggling through the last few chapters of your required reading.