Read a Book, Get Smart. And then…

My husband passed along this article from The Independent. Though the article is short, the implications – and the necessity of fiction as well as other art forms – are worth discussing.

The article references research completed at Emory University which discovered that, in essence, reading a work of literature “transport[s] you into the body of the protagonist” and that the “neural changes” which prompt this state of transcendence (ha!) continue for five days after reading, sort of like a muscle memory.

First, I’m thankful for Tomas Jivanda’s ability to explain neurological science simply enough that I totally get it.

Second, five days?! That’s a long time when you really think about it. Consider the fact that it takes some people a week or so – at intervals, not consistent reading time – to finish a book. So, that means that brain activity could actually increase for a whole two weeks. When you move on to more meaty books (i.e. a colossus like Ulysses) the time of increased brain activity could be even longer.

On a side note, The funny thing about the article is that I read it as I was finishing reading the Fifty Shades trilogy, and, well, the idea that I had “muscle memory” from that series is…alarming and also hilarious. My most active muscle during reading the series were my facial muscles, as I repeatedly rolled my eyes at the author’s writing and the “plot.” However, my brain muscle was activated nonstop as I tracked over-used words. I have definitely had my (lifetime) fill of the words murmur, mercurial, lancing, and salacious. Seriously. There are thesauri aplenty to help in such situations. But I digress.

Back to the important bits. The article specifically recounts that “the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with reciprocity for language, as well as the primary sensory motor region of the brain” registered changes during and after reading a book. So, language and imagination, right? What could be more important?

Language and words are important; after all, as an AP Language and Composition teacher, I know that Everything is an Argument and that my job is to teach my students to analyze various methods of presenting information so that they are critical thinkers and therefore well-informed. Not only that, but as I tell them repeatedly, if you don’t sound educated, no one will ever believe that you are educated. Language matters. The ability to communicate matters, and the ability to analyze communication matters. In fact, it’s essential.

As for imagination, many people seem to be weighing in on it lately. To show just a few, there was the Neil Gaiman speech I wrote about before. Also, Nicholas Ferroni wrote about how imagination, really, is an attribute on which America must rely: “It can be argued with good reason that, without the arts, America would lose the very creative and free thinking spirit that has come to define us since our conception.” I know I’ve quoted him before, but Einstein’s advice is extremely relevant here: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Fairy tales are the result of imagination; now, we know that fairy tales create an actual neurological reaction that, well, provokes the reader’s imagination.

So if imagination, hence the arts and humanities, are so important, why are they disappearing?

Well, because imagination forms the basis for new ideas, new ways of doing things, and even ideas about reform such as those proposed by Jesse Myerson in The Rolling Stone.

“No wonder,” said Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, “the officialdom is doing everything in its power to kill the humanities.”

5 thoughts on “Read a Book, Get Smart. And then…

  1. When I read the Fifty Shades trilogy, I kept a pen nearby just so I could circle the funniest bits. Those books are full of LOLs in the margins.

  2. Loved your blog post. It was not only a compelling read, in and of itself, but it did a service for the author of the article that inspired it. After I finished, I went back to the original article and devoured it as well. Your blog gave me a chuckle. I’m not sure I’d want to reread Ulysses and trudge along in Bloom’s mind for, what, 5 days times the number of weeks it took me to read it?!

    One intzy-teenzy suggestion: any links you provide would better serve the reader to have them open in another window. That way they won’t take the reader away from your blog each time they are clicked on, but would, instead, open in a mini-window on the same screen as your own post. Just a thought.

    Thanks for your post. I’m following it so I will get notification of future offerings.

  3. On the 50 Shades subject. It seems to be fairly empirical that women “get off” on erotic literature and men on erotic images. So if this is so, how does it impact the “muscle memory” element hypothesis gender-wise I wonder. And did the experiment control for this? I doubt it — too simple… Perhaps, since the market has recently been flooded with girly-porn, many women nowadays also think about sex every 2 minutes as suggested by the modern mythsters regarding men.

    But back to the real takeaway from reading. As a child, reading was a form of (needed) escape and I can certainly relate to a given story staying with me for often longer than 5 days. Better still, over 40 years on, after reading The Hobbit and Bilbo’s epic journey I still remember resolving that a trip to the shop for Mom was somehow not so daunting for a shy (and lazy) 12-yo boy.

    The doomsayers who criticize Xbox et al and reflect that it will come at a price to developing minors may have a point, even *if* their logic is misdirected.

    Happily, my teenagers mix and match these forms of entertainment; perhaps because we read those fairy tales to them as infants…

    • Well, I read the series and wrote about my shame at beginning it here. I was going to post an overall review of the series, but found the idea…tiresome.

      At any rate, yes, reading to children is key. I read to my daughter (now 13) every night as she was growing up, until she could read for herself, and now I would never have enough money to buy enough books for her to read. Thank goodness we live across the street from a library and patronize a local used bookstore on a regular basis.

      We’re also reading to my 15-month-old son every night, and he absolutely loves it. He loves his books (and loves mine, too, though he really just loves to unstack them and stack them again) and has definite favorites already. It’s a joy to see.

      Reading is truly key to so many things.

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment!

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