What Does Reading Do to Your Brain?

What Does Reading Do to Your Brain?

In a conversation on the accomplishments to be desired in the ideal woman, Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy comments, “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

It seems that, for both genders, “extensive reading” of literary classics invigorates the brain-mind. Stanford researchers used brain-imaging technology to investigate what happens in the brain when people read Austen for pleasure and for analysis. Writer Corrie Goldman reports,

In an innovative interdisciplinary study, neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars are working together to explore the relationship between reading, attention and distraction—by reading Jane Austen.

Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for “executive function,” areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project.

Both types of reading activate the human brain, but in different regions. Reading analytically shows increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and the researchers found that thinking vigorously about the novel’s content produced noticeable benefits. Phillips believes the results of the study could suggest “it’s not only what we read—but thinking rigorously about it that’s of value, and that literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.”

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren would likely agree. In their classic How To Read A Book, these two great educators emphasize the need for people to read challenging books. In fact, Adler and Van Doren insist that if people are going to grow in genuine knowledge and wisdom then they must read books that are over their heads.

Judeo-Christian Scripture has promoted intellectual exercise for far longer. (Historically, Jews, Christians, and even Muslims have been known as “people of the Book” because they all have a revelatory scripture at the heart of their religion.) As Christianity later spread about the globe, it usually brought literacy with it. Believers thought that if a person couldn’t read and think well then he or she couldn’t benefit maximally from reading God’s inspired Word. Thus, classical Christian education emphasizes that the disciple pursues the life of the mind to the glory of God.

Part of what makes humans God’s image bearers (Genesis 1:26­–27) is the possession of profound intellectual faculties and qualities. Humanity’s unique brain-mind (body-soul) unity endows us with the conceptual abilities to trace God’s thoughts after Him. In creation, those divine thoughts come in the general patterns of nomos (laws) and logos (logic). In the Bible, God’s thoughts come in a special propositional form as inspired words.

It would now appear that both the brain-mind and the spirit benefit from “extensive reading”!