A recent New York Times article entitled, ‘Your Brain on Fiction’ by Annie Murphy Paul highlighted emerging research into the neuroscience of reading. This article brought up several points which seem to be extremely relevant to scholars studying historical reading. It also prompted me to ask why is there such disconnect between the fields of educational neuroscience and educational theory, and the study of historical reading?
Paul’s article cited several new studies which map various types of brain activity while individuals perform reading tasks. What is emerging, is compelling new evidence about the power of reading to simulate real-life experience. Researchers have found that reading words like ‘cinnamon’ that have a strong smell association activates parts of the brain used in olfactory processing. Similarly reading descriptions of actions like ‘kicking a ball’ stimulate not only the parts of the brain used for decoding language but also parts of the brain associated with physical movement of the legs. Paul concluded ‘The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.’
Reading feeds our brains, in similar ways to real-life experience. We can even improve our social skills and interpersonal empathy by immersing ourselves in the emotional life of fictional characters. This is powerful corroborative evidence to anecdotal claims for the power of reading. Eighteenth-century debates over the ‘usefulness’ of various types of literature, the impact of novels on impressionable readers, and the ability of texts to serve as vicarious experience take on a whole new dimension. What could a study of the impact of eighteenth-century travel literature reveal if it was underpinned by this type of neuroscience? Or what possibilities exist for explaining the rash of suicides which followed the reading of The Sorrows of Young Werther? With so much potential why haven’t more book history scholars called on educational neuroscience in their research?
Well, it only took a small amount of digging to discover some partial explanations. A 2011 review of neuroscience research on reading in the Reading Research Quarterly by George G. Hruby et al, provided a much more detailed analysis of resent research than Paul’s brief article. The first hurdle for book history scholars is the technical nature of this research, which at times required detailed knowledge of brain functions in order to be usefully applied. However even non-experts can begin to understand some of the implications of this research, and book history scholars could usefully apply many of these findings to historical theories of reading and educational practice. In some cases this may justify a more serious look at historical concerns around reading practice.
A second hurdle, and one glossed over by Paul, is the conditional nature of many of these neurological findings. Many of the techniques now available for brain imaging can only give us a rough estimate of where things are happening in the brain, and are still very conditional. So while the brain may treat reading about kicking a ball in a similar way to actually kicking a ball, is the same true for experiences, smells, or emotions that have never been encountered in real-life?
Although there are difficulties with interpreting and making use of educational neuroscience research, there are also immense rewards waiting for the brave book historian willing to engage with them, and I for one would like to see more interdisciplinary work of this type. This research also confirms the benefits of reading, not only for the content it can convey, but also for the ways in which it enlarges our lives and our brains.