On Reading: The Literature on Literature

By Kathy Crowley

Full public disclaimer: I am a lightweight in the world of scientific reading.  Science can be fun, though–the Periodic Table and the Krebs Cycle notwithstanding.  And I especially like science when it reinforces what I want to believe anyway (see disclaimer above).

For example — I have a co-worker who posts all the scientific studies showing the health benefits of coffee, just above the coffee maker at work.  While I stand there waiting for my cuppa to brew, I read about how I am keeping Parkinson’s disease at bay (here, from JAMA), reducing my chances of developing diabetes (here from The Lancet), and generally waking up (you don’t need a medical reference on this).

So as a lifelong fiction lover, it is not surprising that I am also interested in the neuroscience that continues to grow around reading – why it feels good and why it’s good for you.  Below are the highlights, based on my science-lite review of the literature.

Reading literature makes you smarter.

Here’s one thing those wild and crazy scientists did:  They took a group of unsuspecting people and had them read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor” – “a disturbing and surreal tale in which a doctor travels by “unearthly horses” to an ill patient, only to climb into bed naked with him and then escape through the window ‘naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages.'” They took another similarly innocent group and gave them “The Country Doctor” rewritten in a way such that the plot made more sense.  THEN they made both groups take a test to assess their pattern recognition.  Guess who did better?

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