Does Reading Literature Really Beef Up Your Brain?

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Portrait of John Keats (London, 1795 - Rome, 1821), English poet, Oil on canvas by Joseph Severn (1793-1879), 1821-1823, 56.5 x41.9 cm
Photo: DEA PictureLibrary/Getty Images

When you hide your cell phone, log off your computer, and find a few rare moments of calm to read some poetry or a weighty novel, it certainly feels as though it ought to be good for you. Just as filling your lungs with fresh air leaves you feeling physically rejuvenated, the words and plot twists of smart literature seem to exercise and cleanse your mind.

That’s how it feels, but psychology researchers have found it difficult to document the concrete benefits of reading. This isn’t entirely surprising — for one thing, this is a complicated subject to study because people who are more intelligent and emotionally skilled are probably more likely to want to read fiction and poetry, meaning it’s hard to determine whether being smart makes you want to read, reading makes you smarter, or some combination of the two. Also, there are just so many different types of literature, so many ways to consume it (binge-reading versus working slowly through a novel, for example), and numerous potential benefits to explore. In short, this isn’t a topic that slides neatly under the proverbial microscope.

Consider a study from 2006 that found that people with stronger empathy skills tended to know the names of more novelists, which was presented in some circles as proof that reading fiction makes you more empathic. But who’s to say that people with more empathy don’t just read more? More recently, a widely reported study linked reading excerpts of literary fiction (but not the reading of pop fiction or nonfiction) with improvements in certain emotional skills, but critics pointed out the arbitrary and limited choice of excerpts (e.g., the likes of Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis excerpts in the smart fiction condition versus Danielle Steele and Rosamunde Pilcher in the pop fiction, among others), and highlighted the patchiness of the apparent benefits — reading literary fiction appeared to only have effects on some of the tests that were used, such as reading emotions in faces, but not others that involved trying to deduce what someone was thinking.

In the last few years, neuroscientists have joined the mission to attempt to measure and observe the concrete benefits of reading literature. In 2014, for example, a brain imaging paper attracted international headlines by appearing to show that reading Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris changed connectivity patterns in specific functional hubs in people’s brains. Unfortunately, there were no tests of the participants’ mental performance, nor any control condition. This means, contrary to exciting headlines like  “Brain function ‘boosted for days after reading a novel,’” that we don’t really know whether these connectivity changes improve people’s mental or emotional skills, nor whether other activities, such as chatting with friends, might have the same or similar effects. 

Now the latest effort in this research genre has been published online at the journal Cortex, with the intriguing title “Shall I compare thee’: The neural basis of literary awareness, and its benefits to cognition.” The researchers, a group of cognitive neuroscientists and literary scholars at the University of Liverpool in England led by Noreen O’Sullivan, set out to provide some brain-based evidence for why reading is apparently of benefit to “mental health and well-being.”

The research the scientists cite as evidence these benefits exist in the first place is not particularly robust — for example, one study they mentioned involved the apparent benefits depressed patients enjoyed from participating in a reading group at a family doctor’s surgery, but there was no control condition to compare against, making it impossible to confidently attribute any benefits to reading (as opposed to, say, hanging out with other people).

But for the purpose of their study, the researchers assumed that these benefits exist, and sought to determine why they do. They believe that reading complex literature, including poetry, requires an agility of mind to consider multiple meanings and that this mental ability then translates to real life, allowing the reader to respond flexibly and with open-mindedness to their own trials and tribulations. The researchers further reasoned that this heightened mental agility should be apparent at the level of brain function. They claim to have found this neural evidence, but when you actually dig into the results, they’re not as convincing or easy to interpret as they appear at first glance.

To test their theories, the researchers recruited 24 English literature undergrads (16 women) and asked them to lie in a brain scanner and read and reflect on 48 four-line pieces of prose and poetry, each of which either ended with or without a line requiring a reappraisal of meaning.

Here’s a snippet of poetry that didn’t require a reappraisal of meaning: 

What are days for?
Days are where we live.                                                        
They come, they wake us                                                      
Time and time over.

Here’s some poetry that did require a reappraisal of meaning: 

She lived unknown, and few could know                            
When Lucy ceased to be.                                                    
But she is in her grave, and, oh,                                            
The difference to me.

And here’s some prose that didn’t require reappraisal:

Remedies are there to be found                                                          
If not in nature, then in bottles.                                                  
These can be convincing and life-changing                                            
But I am tired of looking for cures

And some prose that did:

She lived a lonely life in the country                                                
Where he tried to find her                                                          
When he saw the bright and lively house                                          
He knew she was dead.

After their scan, the students looked at the items again and rated each on how poetic they thought it was and whether they felt they’d had to reappraise its meaning. The students who were better at distinguishing the poetry from the prose and at judging when they’d had to reappraise the meaning of an item were considered to have stronger “literary awareness,” which the researchers imply comes from time spent reading high-brow literature and poetry, rather than from being, say, more intelligent.

The students’ brain activity was different when they looked at poetry versus prose, and it varied depending on whether they were reading or reflecting on the writing. For example, reading poetry was correlated with more activity in parts of the frontal cortex and temporal cortex (near the ears), part of the brain associated with language, memory, and emotion, among other functions, consistent with the idea that poetry is more demanding and requires the reader to maintain several interpretations in their mind at once. More important for the researchers’ theory, the students’ brain activity also varied depending on their levels of literary awareness.

Specifically, while reading and reflecting on prose and poetry, students with more literary awareness showed different levels of activity in regions making up the so-called central executive network (including frontal brain areas and regions near the crown of the head in the parietal lobe) and in the so-called salience network (including regions involved in controlling basic bodily functions and representing bodily states, such as the insula and the brain stem). Literary awareness was also related to the brain-activity patterns specifically seen while the students reflected on poetry, including key nodes in the so-called default mode network, which is a collection of brain areas that becomes more active when we disengage from the outside world.

Taken altogether, these results suggest that the students who were more sensitive to the differences between prose and poetry and more aware of shifts in meaning tended to show a range of distinct activity patterns in their brains while they were reading, as compared to those with less literary awareness. O’Sullivan and her team members argue these differences are meaningful and that they provide brain-based evidence that shows greater literary awareness is associated with the ability to think more flexibly and to consider multiple meanings at once. In short, the researchers write, “We draw a parallel between the non-linear process a reader goes through in reading a complex text, and the mix of uncertainties, choices, blunderings, successes, and insights that we all live through on a daily basis.”

As a fan of literary fiction (not so much poetry, I have to admit), I like this idea a lot. It’s intuitive and would suggest that reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel won’t just be fun, but it will also train your brain to better cope with the uncertainties of real life. And yet, as with so much research in this area, the results just don’t seem to come close to supporting the grandiose claims being made. In this case, the researchers have made some extraordinarily specific interpretations of the incredibly broad range of brain-activity patterns that seemed to be associated with greater literary awareness. It is certainly intriguing that the students with more literary awareness showed different brain activity, but the researchers’ interpretations of those brain differences are largely speculation.

The researchers also don’t know if their measure of literary awareness was really just a proxy for a more mundane trait, such as intelligence. And they know nothing of the students’ well-being, outlook, or coping skills in real life. Plus, remember that there actually isn’t a great deal of robust psychological evidence for the benefits of reading in the first place — it arguably makes more sense to do that research first before trying to uncover the neural basis for effects that haven’t been successfully demonstrated yet.

In short, it would be so neat if the more literary-aware students approached life with the philosophical perspective of a poet or novelist, but for now, despite the fancy brain-scan findings, that idea remains little more than a good news story awaiting more evidence.  

Dr. Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer), a Science of Us contributing writer, is editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.