Tag Archives: Reading

Why reading feeds our brain

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.



Filed under Book History

Conference Season

Summer is always a busy time of year, for while courses are over and seminars are generally suspended, it is conference season.  I generally really like attending conferences and presenting my work.  They provide me with motivation to finish various bits of work, as well as useful forums for trying out new material, and of course great opportunities to learn a load of new information and meet new people in relatively short time frame.

During July, I presented two papers on print related topics.  The first was a paper for the Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society anual conference on the business model of the Northern Star newspaper.  More information to come in a later post.

More recently, I returned from ‘Europe, Empire and Public Opinion: Debate and Consensus in the Three Kingdoms 1660-1763’ a conference put on by the gentlemen at Hertford College in Oxford.  This was an intimate conference, but was packed with heavy hitters like Allan MacInnes (University of Strathclyde), Steve Pincus (University of Yale) and Phil Withington (University of Cambridge).  Like most great conferences the discussion built over the course of the event, focusing on imperial policy and politics in England, but with a good dose of Ireland and the Caribbean thrown in as well.

While the conference in general was very politically focused (Whigs and Tories featured in nearly every paper), Dr. Benjamin Bankhurst (King’s College, London) and I managed to bring reading into the picture with our panel entitled ‘Reading America’.  My own contribution was a case study on the early education and reading of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.  Here I used Carroll’s correspondence and his reading to trace the evolution of his opinions regarding Britain and her empire.

While the paper itself was well-received, there is certainly much room for further work to be done on the subject.  Hopefully, I will be able to take some of the comments and further develop the paper as an article.  Stay tuned for further updates and discussion on the reading habits of Mr. Carroll.

While the summer is nearly over, there are always more conferences.  The next major conference on my calendar is the transatlantic ‘Ireland, America and the Worlds of Mathew Carey’ which will be a two-part conference started in October in Philadelphia and finished in November in Dublin.  This should be particularly exciting because it will bring together scholars from both across the Atlantic working on a range of subjects, each of which relates in some way to Mathew Carey or the worlds that he inhabited.  As a committee member for the Dublin leg of the conference, I am privileged to attend both ends of the conference, despite only presenting here in Dublin.  Look out for updates on this subject in the coming months.

For now, I am off to start answering the new calls for papers which are already out for next year’s conferences.


Leave a comment

Filed under Conferences