It’s a topic that I’ve discussed already a couple of times on this blog (check e.g. here and here), but now Christian Jarrett wrote an excellent article for NYMag’s Science of us, but shows that the evidence isn’t that clear cut yet: Does reading literature really beef up your brain?
In the last few years, neuroscientists have joined the mission to attempt to measure and observe the concrete benefits of reading literature. In 2014, for example, a brain imaging paper attracted international headlines by appearing to show that reading Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris changed connectivity patterns in specific functional hubs in people’s brains. Unfortunately, there were no tests of the participants’ mental performance, nor any control condition. This means, contrary to exciting headlines like “Brain function ‘boosted for days after reading a novel,’” that we don’t really know whether these connectivity changes improve people’s mental or emotional skills, nor whether other activities, such as chatting with friends, might have the same or similar effects
In short, it would be so neat if the more literary-aware students approached life with the philosophical perspective of a poet or novelist, but for now, despite the fancy brain-scan findings, that idea remains little more than a good news story awaiting more evidence.
Does this mean we should abolish literature and stop looking for benefits? Ehm, no, not at all. Parallel with art for art’s sake, there is also prose and poetry for literature’s sake.