Saturday, March 5, 2016

Brain Research Shows Reading Literature Matters! Some Practical Implications

I've written before about the amazing capabilities of the brain, in particular, the capacity that the brain of the young child has to learn and change rapidly in the first years of life (here). A number of research projects have shown that babies and the very young can know, observe, imagine, explore and learn more than we previously thought possible. In a second post (here) I explored the place of 'deep practice' in learning and the increased plasticity that we now know the brain possesses. In this post I want to comment on a third area of inquiry that has demonstrated some amazing new connections between 'real life' experiences and those encountered via the experiences of human intellectual activities like reading.

Have you ever heard people say things like:

"I was lost in the book"
"I was so moved by that book I couldn't talk about it"
"After finishing the book I simply sat gripping it lost in a moment of devastating pain"
"Books are my escape into a world that is less painful than my everyday life"
"I hated that character"
"The book changed my life"

For many of us, the experience of literature can have quite profound impacts on us. Recent neuroscience research is beginning to give us some sense of why this might be so. This research has used MRI brain scans to help us understand the way the brain reacts when the subjects read certain things. Of particular interest has been what happens to brain activity when we read about experiences, compared to how it reacts when we have firsthand experiences. In short, the weight of various projects suggests that the brain doesn't behave that differently whether we read about experiences, or actually have real life experience. Whether read, or experienced, the same regions of the brain appear to be stimulated. Annie Paul wrote an excellent excellent overview and introduction to this area a couple of years ago (HERE).

In varied research projects brain scans are revealing much about brain activity as we read texts with detailed description, evocative metaphor and event emotional exchanges between characters. Just as readers have experienced while reading, science is showing how stories stimulate the brain and can even change how we act in life.

It isn't a new concept that the language regions of the brain like Broca’s and Wernicke’s are involved in the way the brain interprets written words. Research now shows that narrative activates many other parts of our brains as well. The experience of reading can feel as if it is real life. For example, experiments have shown that words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap” don't just elicit responses from the language-processing areas of our brains, they also elicit those dealing with smell.

Other research has shown that reading tastes and topics impact on how readers self-identify. For example people who read the Harry Potter self-identify with wizards, while those who read Stephanie Meyers 'Twilight' vampire themed fantasy romance novels self-identify as vampires.

Studies on the psychology of fiction increasingly provide the evidence for why we often experience deeply emotional experiences with books. Books influence our emotions and ideas and in fact can change us! It's worth thinking about what we read, as well as what our children read (and as an aside, what they watch).

Novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto Keith Oatley, suggests that reading can produce vivid simulations of reality. Rich descriptions, emotionally gripping texts and vivid human encounters offer a type of passage into the real world. Fiction he suggests offers a rich replica of life! You can read some of his work HERE.

Applying this research

Most teachers of literature and avid readers will tell you that this all makes sense to them and matches their experiences. But it does underline a few basic things that teachers and parents should note:

1. Reading fiction matters and it must NOT be neglected
2. Variety in fiction is important for children as they learn about their world and themselves
3. Teachers and parents should give attention to trying to connect children to varied and good literature.
4. Persist in trying to connect our children with special books

Some Practical applications

1. Work hard to connect children with varied books that they will enjoy  2. Help children to manage their time so that they have time to read - this might require us to restrict screen time for activities those activities that offer only limited reading opportunities.
3. Provide opportunities for children to experience all forms of literature (novels, plays, poetry as well as film)
4. Show interest in the things children read - talk to them about their reading, ask them to share what they are reading and why, engage with them concerning the content of their reading and their interests.
5. Encourage opportunities for children to share their reading interests - try discussion groups, one-on-one reading conferences, 'dining room table' discussions with small groups of students (as developed by Nancie Atwell).
6. Help children to become writers as well - reading feeds writing and writing feeds reading. Get children excited about both by allowing them to take greater control and by supporting them at every step. Encourage them to write for real readers and try to establish ways for others to read their writing as well.


Joanne said...

It makes me wonder whether there has been similar research done about how the brain responds to screens and how the brain activity compares to the brain activity of real life experiences.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Joanne, the short answer is yes. This has been the focus for a number of researchers for at least 30 years and it continues to this day.