Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Should you read more because a neuroscientist said so?

By Lindsey Grubbs

Lindsey Grubbs is a PhD student in the English Department at Emory University, where she is also working on a certificate in bioethics. She holds a master’s degree in English and gender studies from the University of Wyoming. She is interested in the relationship between literature and science, and works with American literature from the nineteenth century until today to interrogate and complicate the boundaries between health and wellness, normalcy and aberrance, and physical and mental complaints.

As neuroscientists begin to approach topics usually falling under the purview of other specialties, how can they ethically incorporate various forms of knowledge rather than provide simplified metrics that will, in a data hungry society, be easier for most to latch onto?

In 2013, we saw the publication of at least two high profile studies claiming neuroscientific proof for the potential moral benefits of reading fiction. Greg Berns and his associates published “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain” in Brain Connectivity (Berns, Blaine, Prietula, & Pye, 2013), and David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano published “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” in Science (Kidd & Castano, 2013). The Berns article makes a relatively modest claim: the day after an evening session reading a novel, test subjects had short-term increased brain connectivity in areas of the brain associated with taking perspectives and understanding narratives, and longer-term connectivity that lasted several days in the bilateral somatosensory cortex, which the authors suggest could help explain the mechanism of “embodied semantics,” the idea that there is somatosensory involvement in the processing of language, as when tactile metaphors like “I had a rough day” activate the somatosensory cortex (Lacey, Stilla, & Sathian, 2012). As suggested by its title, the Kidd and Castano piece makes a more dramatic claim: the authors conducted five experiments and write that reading award-winning literary fiction improves subjects’ theory of mind both alone and in comparison to nonfiction or popular bestselling fiction. The reaction to these studies in the press follows the trend of a mania for neuroscientific evidence and colorful images of the brain1.  Why is it necessary, though, to grant scientific authority more weight as evidence than other forms of knowledge?

Via The Wire

Our society values information that seems objective over that which seems subjective—at times a value that makes sense, but one that is exaggerated in the case of something like responses to literature, which are inherently subjective. Writing for the New York Times, Alissa Quart writes, “The problem isn’t solely that self-appointed scientists often jump to faulty conclusions about neuroscience. It’s also that they are part of a larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience” (Quart, 2012). The reading studies and the press reactions to them clarify the need for interdisciplinary work that truly engages with, rather than pays lip service to, multiple sources of knowledge—not just scientific protocol, but also generations of thoughtful work in the humanities.

Kidd and Castano’s study highlights the need for truly engaged interdisciplinary work, as it engages with literary topics without full consideration of the dynamics of reading—they perform what ought to be an interdisciplinary study without the necessary expertise, leading to a weaker study compounding the type of media “neurohype” this one received. While Kidd and Castano acknowledge literary theory by employing literary critic Roland Barthes’ differentiation between “readerly” texts, which encourage passive reading, and “writerly” texts, which engage the reader and require them to produce their own meanings (a move demonstrating that they’ve done some homework in literary theory), they use the terms imprecisely (Barthes likely would have classed all of the books in the study as “readerly”—none were “weird” enough to garner a “writerly” diagnosis, which describes text like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) and perhaps to the point of inaccuracy. Anyways, the terms originate over forty years ago, and hardly reflect more contemporary, nuanced understandings of how texts engage the reader.

More recent literary theory suggests that the value and substance of a text is not an inherent quality of a work; rather, the meaning of a text is created in the relationship between the reader and the page, both enmeshed in a complex context of race, class, gender, and other factors. By making the claim that “literary fiction” improves theory of mind while “popular fiction” does not—a messy distinction framed as though it were a straightforward one (it seems important to note that the results of Berns’ study—which used a “popular,” not “literary” novel—would suggest that this is wrong, and that reading need not be literary to improve empathy), Kidd and Castano’s study also risks propping up class-based distinctions. Supporting the bias that reading “high-culture” literature, which is undeniably bound up in classed, racialized, and gendered inequalities, is more morally salutary than reading other texts on the basis of one measure is irresponsible, and shows an inadequate engagement with the politics of reading. Despite a brief nod to the class-based distinctions between the two groups, the authors maintain that the notion of “literary value” has “ecological validity” because it can be detected by readers. But it is precisely this ecological validity that changes how the text will be read: we live in a culture that values certain types of writing from certain types of authors (most typically, dead white men), and this value is necessarily historically contingent—not “objective.” Today, we know when we pick up a mystery or sci-fi novel that we are supposed to read it easily, quickly, and probably with a bit of embarrassment. In contrast, when we pick up “serious” literature, we are supposed to engage and work at meaning—which we can easily imagine would impact the neural mechanisms at play.

Via stanford.edu

Incorporating an expert in literary study could have helped the experiment design avoid this problem. Consider the work of Natalie Phillips, an English professor working with neuroscientists and radiologists on a study of the neuroscience of reading and attention. Subjects read Jane Austen in an MRI and alternated between skimming casually and reading closely—revealing that the two types of reading produced very different patterns on the MRI. Her familiarity with literature allowed her to realize that there are not simply different types of texts, but also different types of reading—a key oversight in the Kidd and Castano study. Future research into the relationship between reading and the brain would be more thorough, convincing, and conceptually and ethically sound if it includes humanities scholars, who contribute a different kind of knowledge. Conversely, the growing body of work in the humanities that incorporates a cognitive approach must be vigilant about including science ethically, which is to say scientifically—not “pop-scientifically.”

As neuroscientists become more deeply engaged with social questions, as Berns and Kidd and Castano have done with these recent studies, we will need to begin sorting through a complex series of questions. Julianne Chiaet writes in Scientific American that Kidd and Castano’s study could influence educational programs, prison reform, and the treatment of autism. But how well supported does a scientific claim have to be before we use it to shape policy? Kidd and Castano acknowledge that the research is preliminary, focused on only one of a wide array of possible benefits of reading, and that much research remains—however, that doesn’t stop them from suggesting potential policy implications based on the limited knowledge they propose. They point to the new Common Core State Standards and argue that more fiction ought to be included in the curriculum (at the expense of other subjects of study). Alternatively, what are the implications of “prescribing” reading as a kind of social medication for those deemed pathologically asocial? Writing for Slate, Mark O’Connell expresses concern about looking at reading in a "morally instrumentalist" way. What are the dangers of suggesting that mandated reading programs could “fix” our criminals and children with autism at the expense of broader social reforms that would reduce the incentives to commit crimes or the stigma our culture aims at people with disabilities? Moving forward, tackling these types of questions will require the pooled expertise of those in the sciences and humanities.

1 Berns uses neuroimaging, while Kidd and Castano use measures of theory of mind like “reading the mind in the eyes” tests.


Berns, G. S., Blaine, K., Prietula, M. J., & Pye, B. E. (2013). Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain. Brain Connectivity, 3(6), 590–600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166

Chiaet, J. (2013). Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy. Scientific American. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science, 342(6156), 377–380. doi:10.1126/science.1239918

Lacey, S., Stilla, R., & Sathian, K. (2012). Metaphorically feeling: Comprehending textural metaphors activates somatosensory cortex. Brain and Language, 120(3), 416–421. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2011.12.016

O’Connell, M. (2013, October 28). 10 Novels to a Better You. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/10/does_reading_fiction_make_you_a_more_empathic_better_person.2.html

Quart, A. (2012, November 23). Neuroscience: Under Attack. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/opinion/sunday/neuroscience-under-attack.html

"This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes." (2012, September 7). Stanford University. Retrieved June 11, 2014, from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html

Want to cite this post?

Grubbs, L. (2014). Should you read more because a neuroscientist said so? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2014/06/should-you-read-more-because.html

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