Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a complex, challenging novel read by millions. And now a recent collaboration between Stanford neuro-biologists and English Post doctorate Natalie Phillips suggests that complex novels such as Mansfield Park can activate key brain areas. So, get a copy of the book and get your brain in high gear!
Researchers from the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging took brain scans of several literary PhD students as they read a chapter from Mansfield Park. First, the PhD students were asked to read the book casually, for fun. Then students were asked to switch to a critical reading mode similar to how they might analyze it in a literature classroom
This switch in reading modes created a significant shift in brain activity patterns on fMRI scans. Casual reading activated pleasure centers while critical reading increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the executive functions heavily involved in attending to tasks like reading.
Executive function is responsible for more than just attentive reading: this brain function helps moderate how you divide your attention, use your working memory, and generally direct your brainpower. It plays a powerful role in decision-making.
While the findings of the Stanford study are preliminary, they make a good case for further research on the impact of reading on cognition. Philips posits that critical reading could serve as a type of training, “teaching us to modulate our concentration.”
There is other evidence that reading can be good for your brain. A 2007 study from the Center for Occupational and Environmental Neurology found that avid readers benefited from an increased cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the concept that challenging intellectual activity — like reading or brain training — can protect the brain against negative cognitive impacts later in life.
The studies on reading indicate that investing in intellectually challenging habits as early as possible can benefit your brain over the long term.