Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer

"Deep reading" is vigorous exercise from the brain and increases our real-life capacity for empathy

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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.

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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.

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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.

(PHOTOS: Peter Hapak’s Portraits of Authors)

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.

MORE: Why E-Reading With Your Kid Can Impede Learning

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Murphy Paul

24 comments
BanDuchanan
BanDuchanan

This article is way too long. I'm going to youtube to watch puppies.

jennifer.mitchell99
jennifer.mitchell99

Reading is wonderful and my wish for all of my students is that magic moment when they fall in love with a book, an author, or a genre... and the rest is magic!

Alvin091787
Alvin091787

There is always a sufficient set of evidence and argument to not believe something that affects and hits you very hard. The point is, just please do not dismiss the BENEFIT. The benefit of literature has been outweighing ALL your arguments to dismiss its power and relegate it to either being mundane or simply too esoteric, much more antiquarian. WE are not a dying species, mind you, bashers of Literature.

owen96
owen96

I am trying to advocate for the teens at my high school to have time to read, so that they better develop these empathy skills.  We focus so much on the content of the book that we aren't remembering some of the things we pick up unconsciously.  Teens need to experience lives other than their own (we all do!), so they can see the world from different perspectives and then be able to plot a path to the perspective that they want to have.

Phoenicia
Phoenicia

Does reading literature make us more empathetic?  Depends on the propaganda goal.  Consider the following headline from an article in New Statesman about why so many writers are alcoholics.

"The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing: On the need of hyperarticulate people to get raving drunk

The lives of six writers, and the reasons why they drank so much, are explored in this nuanced portrait which give pleasure in every sentence and offers bright collisions with the past.

By Talitha Stevenson Published 25 July 2013 9:30"

MY RESPONSE:  They were probably harassed and stalked into deep neurosis and addiction by an army of religious creeps who want to create lots of slander to dish into the world to sway the public opinion of an incredibly stupid audience who should have wised up to the pattern of abuse long before now. The same slander world currently rules our media. Someday, we will read the real story of how artists, composers, musicians, and writers have been persecuted over the centuries by religious bullies who probably started their campaign against all dissidents by murdering the painter Raphael on Good Friday, April 6, 1520. Someday the creative community will be freed from these creeps, and we will have composers who are not deaf and can write more than 9 symphonies without being killed.  Creative people of the world unite against the stalkers, saboteurs and their slander!  I can empathize with someone who has been abused, but that doesn't make the abuse, murder, or crippling of writers, musicians, or artists legal, moral, necessary, or helpful.

IgnacioSanabria
IgnacioSanabria

As a writer, my thrill is to take my readers to places they never imagined that could ever existed. I doing it by concocting inverosimile plots that apparently look to good to be true, but they are actually true...In the minds of my readers, of course. 

jjjbbb
jjjbbb

It makes sense that reading makes you more compassionate.  You are constantly looking at things from someone else's view.

jjjbbb
jjjbbb

I once read that a great book is worth a thousand lectures and sermons.  I have to agree.  The characters I read about, be they fictional or real, stick with me in ways that even great sermons fail.  I'm not sure if it is because when we read we can dwell on what is said, if the visual sticks with me longer, or if we are so immersed in the story that we feel like we're experiencing it.  Either way, much of who I am or want to be has been somewhat determined by what I read.

I get so annoyed when parents and educators think anything a kid reads is good b/c at least he/she is reading.  Reading is like food.  There is junk and wholesome.  Your pallet must be established early and carefully maintained.  When my children are young, I don't worry whether or not they read early, but I make sure that I read to them often.  Great books.  We also listen to audio books in the car.  Their spelling needs work (6 & 8 years old), but they both have rich vocabularies and are sophisticated thinkers.

KHawkins
KHawkins

I will have to agree with this article, in so far that the "magic" of reading a book is fast becoming a lost art. So many of the younger generation are so caught up in only reading facebook and twitter, or even only what is considered online news. I am in a class now that there are only 7 students and when asked what their favorite book was, only three came up with an answer, the other three said that they did not read books. I have come across this many times in the last ten years and am always a little shocked that so many people don't read books. I have always found reading a story a fantastic way to lose myself in another world, and use my imagination to create an image of that world. I also agree that by reading a story in a book allows one to connect with the characters in that story, and in turn develop empathy.

ChrisAldrich
ChrisAldrich

I really love the irony of the editorial outlink to another Time story here just above the paragraph with the sentence, "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."

amandahagarty
amandahagarty

Hmmm. I still don't see the "compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy."

Considering you are discussing online reading behavior and "theory of mind" like you know what you are talking about, you must realize that you just planted a false premise in the mind of the masses. All those people who just skimmed the first paragraph will now believe they read some evidence somewhere that reading Tolstoy makes them better than people who read "lesser" books. When really all you have to do is read a good immersive book which allows you to create a world in your mind...and there are a lot of books out there other than Tolstoy that do that.

Whatanotion
Whatanotion

Reading legal cases can be an eye  opener.    Whether that is fiction or not depends on the witnesses and the juries.  Some appeals reflect what some juries are capable of either ignoring or accepting as credible evidence.  Adam Smith pointed out that repetitive jobs have the effect of making people "As stupid as it is humanly possible to become."  Still I cannot and do not discredit reading fiction.  I opine only to point out that reading non-fiction is important too. 

waqar.chu
waqar.chu

i think this is a limited research material the circumstances in country like Pakistan is very different where reading has been vanished fro m the surface only..................

chaokai60
chaokai60

Years ago on an occasion of book fair duration, when an answer was given to this paradox, "why we buy the books, why we were reading the books, and why reading books would make us smarter." The answer was that those who were reading books could also go to the movies, playing sports and watching games, they weren't necessarily being poorer to choose reading. They read books because that was of their interests, and for that reason reading made them smarter. 

theirmind
theirmind

That should I "Pride and Prejudice" to start.

mzteachuh
mzteachuh

Thank you for this article, and also 'Your Brain on Fiction.' As an English major, and teacher of reading, I fully appreciate the marvel of interaction with excellent literature. No one could say we didn't canoe with Nathaniel Bumppo down the Glimmerglass, worry about Tiny Tim, or have adventures with Anne (with an e) Shirley. We saw Julius Caesar stabbed to death, visited Narnia and returned, and somehow still live with Winnie-the-Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood. Are we better people for this? Of course.

saidhamideh
saidhamideh

Perhaps kindness or caring is a better word for the title? I care more about people when I've been sucked into their story and they become the protagonist of a world. I think this is why people often avoid getting to know others -- we have a limited emotional reservoirs in this busy world. What if novels actually inure us to real caring because we only decide to become attached to fictional protagonists that we know we don't really need to help out or ultimately care for?

Phoenicia
Phoenicia

@amandahagarty After Tolstoy had his Spiritual conversion, he stopped writing novels and wrote primarily short parable folk tales to help the peasant community understand Jesus' teachings in their original intent and not perverted by the Russian Orthodox Church to support the Czar and his war and tyranny.  Tolstoy wrote himself beyond literature and the cultured life of a Russian nobleman.

KHawkins
KHawkins

@amandahagarty  I agree with you, I have never read Tolstoy, but have read several hundred books that have "immersed" my quite deeply!

cormac66
cormac66

@amandahagarty What you wrote is supported by the piece you are addressing but i've seen evidence that when being given a functional MRI (fMRI) and reading quality literature, the parts of the brain that would be activated by the actual experience are also activated by reading about them. But when reading hackneyed and cliche and poor writing, those parts of the brain that would be activated by the experience being written about are not stimulated.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

"Better" in the sense of "have a wider range of knowledge and second-hand experience"?  Yes, surely.  "Better" in the sense of "happier and more satisfied"?  Probably that, too.  But are we "better" in the sense of "made into a more moral being"?  That's a lot harder to say.  Which is the point of the original article, referenced at the top of this one.

cormac66
cormac66

@saidhamideh There's no evidence that there is a finite capacity for empathy that is depleted by reading literature. There is a strong case to be made that great writing allows one to understand the plight of characters that are quite unlike ourselves and/or anyone we are likely to encounter in life. That's how literature enriches our minds. As someone who has read over 2,000 books and has lived in nyc for over 20 years as an adult, I believe the best ways to learn are experience/traveling and reading.