How Reading Increases Your Emotional Intelligence & Brain Function: The Findings of Recent Scientific Studies

Image by Sheila Sund, via Flickr Com­mons

Read­ing “availeth much,” to bor­row an old phrase from the King James Bible. To read is to expe­ri­ence more of the world than we can in per­son, to enter into the lives of oth­ers, to orga­nize knowl­edge accord­ing to use­ful schemes and cat­e­gories…. Or, at least it can be. Much recent research strong­ly sug­gests that read­ing improves emo­tion­al and cog­ni­tive intel­li­gence, by chang­ing and acti­vat­ing areas of the brain respon­si­ble for these qual­i­ties.

Is read­ing essen­tial for the sur­vival of the species? Per­haps not. “Humans have been read­ing and writ­ing for only about 5000 years—too short for major evo­lu­tion­ary changes,” writes Greg Miller in Sci­ence. We got by well enough for tens of thou­sands of years before writ­ten lan­guage. But neu­ro­sci­en­tists the­o­rize that read­ing “rewires” areas of the brain respon­si­ble for both vision and spo­ken lan­guage. Even adults who learn to read late in life can expe­ri­ence these effects, increas­ing “func­tion­al con­nec­tiv­i­ty with the visu­al cor­tex,” some researchers have found, which may be “the brain’s way of fil­ter­ing and fine-tun­ing the flood of visu­al infor­ma­tion that calls for our atten­tion” in the mod­ern world.

This improved com­mu­ni­ca­tion between areas of the brain might also rep­re­sent an impor­tant inter­ven­tion into devel­op­men­tal dis­or­ders. One Carnegie Mel­lon study, for exam­ple, found that “100 hours of inten­sive read­ing instruc­tion improved chil­dren’s read­ing skills and also increased the qual­i­ty of… com­pro­mised white mat­ter to nor­mal lev­els.” The find­ings, says Thomas Insel, direc­tor of the Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health, sug­gest “an excit­ing approach to be test­ed in the treat­ment of men­tal dis­or­ders, which increas­ing­ly appear to be due to prob­lems in spe­cif­ic brain cir­cuits.”

Read­ing can not only improve cog­ni­tion, but it can also lead to a refined “the­o­ry of mind,” a term used by cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists to describe how “we ascribe men­tal states to oth­er persons”—as the Inter­net Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy notes—and “how we use the states to explain and pre­dict the actions of those oth­er per­sons.” Improved the­o­ry of mind, or “intu­itive psy­chol­o­gy,” as it’s also called, can result in greater lev­els of empa­thy and per­haps even expand­ed exec­u­tive func­tion, allow­ing us to bet­ter “hold mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives in mind at once,” writes Brit­tany Thomp­son, “and switch between those per­spec­tives.”

Improved the­o­ry of mind comes pri­mar­i­ly from read­ing nar­ra­tives, research sug­gests. One meta-analy­sis pub­lished by Ray­mond A. Mar of Toronto’s York Uni­ver­si­ty reviews many of the stud­ies demon­strat­ing the effect of sto­ry com­pre­hen­sion on the­o­ry of mind, and con­cludes that the bet­ter we under­stand the events in a nar­ra­tive, the bet­ter we are able to under­stand the actions and inten­tions of those around us. The kinds of nar­ra­tives we read, more­over, might also make a dif­fer­ence. One study, con­duct­ed by psy­chol­o­gists David Com­er Kidd and Emanuele Cas­tano of the New School for Social Research, test­ed the effect of dif­fer­ences in writ­ing qual­i­ty on empa­thy respons­es, ran­dom­ly assign­ing 1,000 par­tic­i­pants excerpts from both pop­u­lar best­sellers and lit­er­ary fic­tion.

To define the dif­fer­ence between the two, the researchers referred to crit­ic Roland Barthes’ The Plea­sure of the Text. As Kidd explains:

Some writ­ing is what you call ‘writer­ly’, you fill in the gaps and par­tic­i­pate, and some is ‘read­er­ly’, and you’re enter­tained. We tend to see ‘read­er­ly’ more in genre fic­tion like adven­ture, romance and thrillers, where the author dic­tates your expe­ri­ence as a read­er. Lit­er­ary [writer­ly] fic­tion lets you go into a new envi­ron­ment and you have to find your own way.

The researchers used two the­o­ry of mind tests to mea­sure degrees of empa­thy and found that “scores were con­sis­tent­ly high­er for those who had read lit­er­ary fic­tion than for those with pop­u­lar fic­tion or non-fic­tion texts,” notes Liz Bury at The Guardian. Oth­er research has found that descrip­tive lan­guage stim­u­lates regions of our brains not clas­si­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with read­ing. “Words like ‘laven­der,’ ‘cin­na­mon’ and ‘soap,’ for exam­ple,” writes Annie Mur­phy Paul at The New York Times, cit­ing a 2006 study pub­lished in Neu­roIm­age, “elic­it a response not only from the lan­guage-pro­cess­ing areas of our brains, but also those devot­ed to deal­ing with smells.”

Read­ing, in oth­er words, can effec­tive­ly sim­u­late real­i­ty in the brain and pro­duce authen­tic emo­tion­al respons­es: “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a dis­tinc­tion between read­ing about an expe­ri­ence and encoun­ter­ing it in real life”—that is, if the expe­ri­ence is writ­ten about in sen­so­ry lan­guage. The emo­tion­al brain also does not seem to make a tremen­dous dis­tinc­tion between read­ing the writ­ten word and hear­ing it recit­ed or read. When study par­tic­i­pants in a joint Ger­man and Nor­we­gian exper­i­ment, for exam­ple, heard poet­ry read aloud, they expe­ri­enced phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions and “about 40 per­cent showed vis­i­ble goose bumps.”

But dif­fer­ent kinds of texts elic­it dif­fer­ent kinds of respons­es. We can read or lis­ten to a nov­el, for exam­ple, and, instead of only expe­ri­enc­ing sen­sa­tions, can “live sev­er­al lives while read­ing,” as William Sty­ron once wrote. The authors of a 2013 Emory Uni­ver­si­ty study pub­lished in Brain Con­nec­tiv­i­ty con­clude that read­ing nov­els can rewire areas of the brain, caus­ing “tran­sient changes in func­tion­al con­nec­tiv­i­ty.” These bio­log­i­cal changes were found to last up to five days after study par­tic­i­pants read Robert Har­ris’ 2003 nov­el Pom­peii. The height­ened con­nec­tiv­i­ty in cer­tain regions “cor­re­spond­ed to regions pre­vi­ous­ly asso­ci­at­ed with per­spec­tive tak­ing and sto­ry com­pre­hen­sion.”

So what? asks a skep­ti­cal Ian Stead­man at New States­man. Read­ing may cre­ate changes in the brain, but so does every­thing else, a phe­nom­e­non well-known by now as “neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty.” Much of the report­ing on the neu­ro­science of read­ing, Stead­man argues, over­in­ter­prets the research to sup­port an “[x] ‘rewires’ the brain” myth both com­mon and “mis­tak­en.” Steadman’s cri­tiques of the Brain Con­nec­tiv­i­ty study are per­haps well-placed. The small sam­ple size, lack of a con­trol group, and neglect of ques­tions about dif­fer­ent kinds of writ­ing make its already ten­ta­tive con­clu­sions even less impres­sive. How­ev­er, more sub­stan­tive research, tak­en togeth­er, does show that the “rewiring” that hap­pens when we read—though per­haps tem­po­rary and in need of fre­quent refreshing—really does make us more cog­ni­tive­ly and social­ly adept. And that the kind of reading—or even lis­ten­ing—that we do real­ly does mat­ter.

via Big­Think/The Guardian/Har­vard

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen: The Neu­ro­science of Read­ing Great Lit­er­a­ture

900 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free 

7 Tips for Read­ing More Books in a Year

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Fiona Louis says:

    This pas­sage is very inter­est­ing and infor­ma­tive. I guess it would explain why some peo­ple act dif­fer­ent when they are read­ing a cer­tain this.

  • Yvette LaRue says:

    Do you know about Zen­tan­gles and Snowy Bing Bongs? Prob­ley.

  • Ruth says:

    If the par­tic­i­pants in the Emery study were read­ing a nov­el like Pom­peii, then they already had a very high lev­el of lit­er­a­cy and stick­a­bil­i­ty (it’s long!). This intro­duces enor­mous bias into the results, which can in no way be extrap­o­lat­ed to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion.

    This seems to be the case for most sim­i­lar stud­ies, as they seem to think they need to use “wor­thy” texts from the Eng­lish or Amer­i­can lit­er­ary canons.
    a) This is not what most peo­ple read when they read fic­tion
    b) These texts bias the study in favour of peo­ple who are used to read­ing long com­plex sto­ries about peo­ple in a dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal cul­ture

    As I librar­i­an I real­ly want evi­dence about read­ing, but it’s hard to use research to push my (admit­ted­ly biased) crit­i­cal lit­er­a­cy agen­da if I, as a layper­son, can already see the flaws.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.