Literary Neuroscience: Research Supports Benefits of Critical Literacy Ed.

By Jason Phillips

Those involved with Montessori are used to contemporary scientific findings confirming Montessori methods and practices. I recently had one of these experiences when I ran across some research looking into the relations between neuroscience and literary theory. Two fascinating studies looked at brain development in people engaged with literature.

DVMS Upper Elementary students building dioramas to illustrate structural elements of novels.

DVMS Upper Elementary students building dioramas to illustrate structural elements of novels.

Regular PATH readers will know that my passion lies in literary and critical theory, and that for a time I was working at DVMS as a literacy specialist developing a comprehensive literacy guide for the elementary and adolescent levels. Central to my teaching of literacy is making student’s aware of the constructed nature of language, of both the content and form of communications (whether they be novels, poems, images, movies…). The two studies looked at here confirm that such an approach has definite physical and cognitive neurological advantages.

In “This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes,” Corrie Goldman reports on work being done that looks at the relation of critical reading and literary form to cognitive development.

MRIs taken of participants in the study showed that reading critically or closely — reading for form and structure as well as content — has a wide range of benefits: “Surprising preliminary results reveal a dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for ‘executive function,’ areas which would normally be associated with paying close attention to a task, such as reading, said Natalie Phillips [no relation], the literary scholar leading the project.”

One of the presentations I gave to students is about Canadian scholar Northrop Frye’s four mythoi. Basically, humans only tell four different stories, each based on parts of mythic cycles: tragedies, comedies, romances (not the mushy kind, the quest kind), and ironies. You can determine which mythos/form a story is by following the path of the protagonist. In a tragedy, for example, the protagonist starts at a low point, rises to a great height, then falls to a low point; a comedy is the opposite. In a romance/quest, the protagonist progresses through a series of challenges in order to complete a task (kill the dragon, marry the princess); an irony is the opposite — the protagonist does not progress.

Having students read a story and determine it’s mythos/form is an example of critical or close reading that elementary-level students can undertake, an example of reading for form as well as content, and of learning how a story is constructed.

This type of reading and thinking is very beneficial for brain development because it engages a variety of regions of the brain: “Phillips said the global increase in blood flow during close reading suggests that ‘paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.'” Goldman notes that Phillips’s research is “the first to consider ‘how cognition is shaped not just by what we read, but how we read it.'”

DVMS UpperElementary student presenting novel analysis.

DVMS UpperElementary student presenting novel analysis.

I introduced the concept of language as a construct — something that has a definite, planned structure — as early as Lower Elementary. On average, kids are coming out of Casa with a complete knowledge of phonetic sounds and how to combine them to make words. Reinforcing the alphabet as a system of signs that represent certain sounds, and that can be combined to make other sounds, leads to the learning of syllables, which are used to build/spell words, that make up sentences, which are themselves made of different types of words (nouns, verbs, and so on), all the way up to stories, which are constructed with lots of sentences, structured into paragraphs and chapters. By Upper Elementary, students with such a grounding are ready to start exploring more abstract concepts (such as tragedy vs. comedy) that can be readily examined and experienced in a material way; every book they read, movie they watch, video game they play, or website they view is a construct that can be critically analyzed — deconstructed to see how it’s put together and how it works.

It is this type of work that Phillips is studying; it is what she means by “paying attention to literary texts.” It was a great joy for me to discover that her findings support the benefits of my approach to literacy education: “If the ongoing analysis continues to support the initial theory, Phillips said, teaching close reading (i.e., attention to literary form) ‘could serve – quite literally – as a kind of cognitive training, teaching us to modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus.'”

The second study, by Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye, and titled “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” published in Brain Connectivity (3.6 2013), looks more specifically at the effect reading literature has on the physical structure of the brain.

They open with an intriguing hypothesis: “”Most people can identify books that have made great impressions on them and, subjectively, changed the way they think…It seems plausible that if something as simple as a book can leave the impression that one’s life has been changed, then perhaps it is powerful enough to cause changes in brain function and structure.”

Their research “identified three independent networks that had significant increases in connectivity” during the experimentation period, during which subjects underwent brain scans before, during, and after reading a novel over a prescribed number of days. The areas of the brain involved in language comprehension were obviously active during the reading, but their work also suggested that affected areas of the brain were “subject to both short- and long-term dynamic reconfigurations.”

One of the most interesting findings involves the longer-term connectivity changes. One of the noted networks of increased activity:

“corresponds closely to a previously identified RSN [Resting State Network, what the researchers were studying] comprising somatosensory and motor regions. …One possibility for increases in somatosensory cortex connectivity is that reading a novel invokes neural activity that is associated with bodily sensations. This is called the theory of ’embodied semantics’. …It is plausible that the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity. …It remains an open question for further study as to how lasting these effects are, but our results suggest a potential mechanism by which reading stories not only strengthen language processing regions but also affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions.”

(Read more about the relationship between readers and novels in a previous PATH article, “Shocking Revelation! Reading is Good For You“).

Reading, it’s a workout for your brain. If you’re interested in learning more about teaching literary form and structure, leave a comment below or get in touch with us through this site’s Contact tab.

One thought on “Literary Neuroscience: Research Supports Benefits of Critical Literacy Ed.

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