This Is Your Brain on Virginia Woolf

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I just read an interesting article at The Guardian.

Literary critics scan the brain to find out why we love to read

Later this year a group of 12 students in New England will be given a series of specially designed texts to read. Then they will be loaded into a hospital MRI machine and their brains scanned to map their neurological responses.

The scans produced will measure blood flow to the firing synapses of their brain cells, allowing a united team of scientists and literature professors to study how and why human beings respond to complex fiction such as the works of Marcel Proust, Henry James or Virginia Woolf.

Can I just say, I’d love to see my brain on Virginia Woolf. I think it would look something like this:

The idea of interpreting the neurological effects of literature (“Neuro Lit Crit”) makes me want to go back to graduate school to study Literature again. Forget Marxist theory. I’d be writing Neuro Lit Crit until my profs demanded I stop.

However, there is an aspect to this article that rubbed me the wrong way. It’s this:

His groups have spent months designing their texts, or “vignettes”, and they have been specifically created to different levels of complexity based on the assumption that the brain reacts differently to great literature than to a newspaper or a Harry Potter book. The aim, Holquist says, is to provide a scientific basis for schemes to improve the reading skills of college-age students.

I’m not sure if this means they’re including newspapers and Harry Potter in the study. regardless, call me jaded, but this smacks of that tired Literary vs. Genre pissing contest. Or Adult vs. Young Adult.

It also raises questions in my mind. Questions such as:

  • How old are the students being studied?
  • Are the students Literature majors?
  • Will they consider the reading habits of the students?
  • Do the students regularly read YA fiction (as MANY adults do)?
  • Did they choose a broad range of literature, or only choose literature from a certain era and locale?
  • Should they maybe repeat this study, using the same students, but this time have them read popular and YA fiction and compare the results?

As a young adult and children’s author, I’m curious to know how an eleven year old’s brain would light up while reading Harry Potter or Percy Jackson as opposed to Virginia Woolf. Sure, the reading centers of the brain would be engaged, but equally so between the two? A middle grade boy is not going to be jazzed reading stream of consciousness literature about a woman buying flowers. I don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know this is true.

I wonder how my own brain scans would look on both Rowling and Woolf. I enjoy reading both. And that’s the gist really, isn’t it? Personal taste. My guess is those things that light up my brain aren’t necessarily going to light up another person’s brain to the same extent. But then again, I’m not a neuroscientist, so maybe I don’t understand the finer aspects of brain scans.

I find this all fascinating. I’ll be watching for the results of this study, and I hope those results lead to further studies that will include a broader range of literature and age groups.


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