The perilous risks and neurological rewards of reading a novel
When my first grader started reading, it often required a bit of external encouragement to get her through what was sometimes a laborious process. She’s now past that initial hump, and reading has become fun and nearly automatic when she encounters written words. She’s been enjoying reading books, sometimes consuming over 100 pages of various fairy-oriented novels in a sitting. While her nerdy parents may smile at such progress, many people throughout history would be quite alarmed at my daughter’s obvious trajectory into ruin. What are all these books doing to my child’s body, brain and soul?
Hating books throughout history
Worries about literacy go back nearly to the advent of writing itself. While many people write about the availability of information on the internet reshaping our minds, such concerns were raised by Plato in Phaedrus. In a myth about the origins of writing, King Thamus fears that writing will make us forgetful and disconnected from reality, because we’ll just read things instead of remember them. After getting such a rough start, reading only became more dangerous as books became more widely available. ‘Bookish’ types were not only in danger of losing their memories, but also damaging their eyes, back and general constitution. However, such ailments paled compared to the damage reading was supposedly wreaking on society and morals.
By the Victorian era, scholars were reading regularly, but novels were cheap enough to find their way into the hands and minds of lower classes of society. Stories of adventures and a wider world were accused of planting dangerous ideas in people’s minds, even raising crime rates. Women, as the supposedly “weaker sex,” were considered especially vulnerable to books’ nefarious influence, especially if those books were romantic in nature (ahem.) Female readers were said to suffer from pallid cheeks, with “wild and restless eyes” while their minds were pulled towards “incurable” insanity. In some cases, suicides and murder were even blamed on books, charges that have since been brought against other forms of media, including comic books, television and video games.
Books’ effects on the brain
I’m fairly certain modernized versions of Nancy Drew aren’t about to put my daughter’s sanity in peril, but anyone who’s been “pulled into” a good story must be experiencing something neurologically relevant, right? In 2006, readers in an fMRI were found to have more activity in sensory areas of the brain when reading sense-oriented words, like “perfume” or “coffee.” Novels can apparently go beyond these sorts of sensory reminders, stimulating connectivity in the left temporal cortex. Almost like the Victorian naysayers predicted, reading about certain actions stimulated parts of the brain associated with experiencing those actions, although crucially, thinking about something like running didn’t necessarily boost motivation head out and do it. The changes didn’t end when the book was closed either. While no test subjects were deemed ‘incurable,’ their brains did show strengthened language-processing regions for at least five days after they finished a novel.
With that in mind, please accept my apologies for any lingering effects from reading all this.
Source: Reading is Bad for your Health by Roy Porter, History Today