Breaking down the theory that big readers are inherently smarter
Parents, what would you rather your kid be doing: Watching TV, playing video games, or reading a book? The likely choice is almost definitely the book, for what seems like obvious reasons. Reading is the cerebral art; loving words and stories and literary characters is something that you shouldn’t just accept, but instead actively foster. Reading comprehension and writing are skills that transcend all occupations and cultures, with the former being something that is a measure of your intelligence… right?
That’s the crux of a new study in the science journal Cortex, which attempted to see the links, if there were any, between what they termed as “literary awareness” and brain activity. In the study, 24 English literature college students were asked to read dozens of snippets of writing. The writing was divided between prose and poetry, as well as ones that required a “reappraisal of meaning” and ones that didn’t. (“Reappraisal of meaning” was their way of basically saying “twist ending.”)
What they found: As social science column Science of Us explains, “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.” It’s a confirmation that being able to understand and place reading in context is something the brain learns, but it doesn’t really answer the central question: Does reading make people smarter?
Well, not necessarily, or at least not in the way that avid readers wish it would. As Science of Us writer Christian Jarrett admits:
The truth at the heart of the reading/intelligence question is the same at the one at the center of most “Is this good for me” questions: It depends as much on how often you do it as it does on the quality of what you’re doing. If you’re only reading thrillers and no other kind of writing, then that’s not broadening the scope of your thinking and literary understanding. Likewise if you only read epic poetry, or only read historical fiction — while there’s incredible diversity within those genre boundaries, the real meat of mental exercises is in transcending those boundaries and placing them within other contexts. Prose and poetry; experimental fiction and weepy romances; lengthy narratives and quick-hit essays — absorbing and digesting all different sources of reading to become a better reader (and writer) yourself.
The entire Science of Us essay is worth reading, especially for its take-down of other literary-minded studies, but regardless of what reading does for your brain, let’s be real: We’d read anyway.
Image courtesy of Focus Features.