Why read?

June 2, 2017

The Science Daily and other outlets report on a study done by Rose Turner, a graduate student in psychology, investigating the relationship between reading habits and personality types. The main finding (as summarized for the lay public) is that “reading may make us kinder.” This is in line with previous research suggesting that reading quality fiction may boost empathy. Turner offers the following explanation for the effect she has observed: “When we read we go by what is simply written on the page and we have to fill in the gaps as we go along, giving us a chance to develop empathic skills as we try to understand what a character is going through. Whereas when we watch something, we are provided with a lot of that information already.” The psychologist, who has a background in drama and acting, believes her “role as an academic is to share [her] findings in an interesting way that members of the public can relate to.”

 

I also hope she keeps tracks of other studies of the effects of reading. Popular Science reports, for example, on one involving fMRI. Researchers found that learning to read as an adult was associated with “increased functional connectivity between deeper regions of the brain.” This means that literacy can change the way the human brain is integrated functionally, and works as a whole. The researchers say it was a surprising result since previous research on the effects of literacy had focused mostly on changes in the neocortex. This comment itself may be a bit unexpected – given all the research conducted by high-profile psychologists and neuroscientists like Maryanne Wolf, Stanislas Dehaene, and others. In any case, these results provide a nice update to the research Alexander Luria conducted in Central Asia in the 1930s (described briefly in Caleb Crain’s memorable New Yorker piece, “Twilight of the Books”).

 

It seems when we think about the impact of reading more generally, we should not focus only (or primarily) the explicit information or lessons readers absorb. We also need to think of brain plasticity at a deeper level – and consider the neurophysiological effects of the very process of reading. Since the brains of children and adolescents are more plastic, they modifications they undergo must be even more profound. We should also keep in mind that different forms (and formats) of reading may have very different effects.

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