Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Infinity and the Brain: The Study of Close Reading and Pleasure Reading

As a former Engineering student (yes, somehow I climbed out of the wilderness of mathematical functions to dwell in the jungle of literature) I positively glow reading about scientific research and discoveries every now and then, and never does it resonate more than when applied to reading or literature. I certainly don't feel that Literature (Children's or otherwise) needs to be legitimized scientifically, but recognizing the interdisciplinary qualities – the brilliant junctions of crossing boundaries – that can emerge from Literary studies fascinates me and reveals the limitless potential of understanding humanness.  We see this when scientific thoughts and theories feature prominently in books – consider the beautifully crafted Infinity and Me by Kate Hosford (author) and Gabi Swiatkowska (illustrator), where the abstract notion of "forever" is plowed through by a young girl until she learns to humanize and bring meaning to it. Check out the blog Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast for an insightful review of the book.

So what of reversing the role, placing Literature into the scientific realm instead? In an article posted today by Laura Miller on the news web magazine Salon, "Your brain loves Jane Austen," Miller speaks with Natalie Phillips, assistant English professor at Michigan State University, about a number of studies she is conducting examining the differences in brain functionality when reading for study and for pleasure. Touching on the enlightening discoveries they have already encountered, Phillips explains, "Pleasure reading has its own demands and close reading has its own pleasures. The value resides in being able to shift between modes. It’s a training in cognitive flexibility."  She also describes, among other things, why they would choose Jane Austen's Mansfield Park as their first source of material.

Reading the interview, you concretely see that the way we read literature effects us in ways we never considered.  I look forward to learning what new findings develop from this. I suggest in the next round of tests, they employ children's books, as I am sure the intellectual and emotional response is going to reveal further variances of brain activity, and may contribute to the discussion of how books can be used in different arenas.

Click here for the book review of Infinity and Me
The Salon article can be found here.

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