Tag Archives: brain on reading

A Tale of Two Readers; or, Everybody Wins

You could say my husband Nic and I are into books. I write them, and read up to sixty a year. Nic reads anywhere from twenty to seventy a year. We love books so much, we had our engagement pictures taken in a library.


Nic and I agree on a lot of things, but there is one major difference between us that frequents our discussions: why we read. I read stories to feel, to experience, to learn and unravel the complexities of life. Nic reads for the story. He reads to be entertained. He can stomach atrocious writing if the story is good. For me, bad writing just flat out ruins a story.  This is why he can read Terry Goodkind and I just can’t. (Sorry, Terry!)

Every now and then, Nic allows me to suggest one of my favorite literary fiction books, and he suggests an enormous fantasy tome to me.  These suggestions have been both hit and miss for both of us. As it turns out, this is because Nic’s brain and my brain are working in two completely different ways while we are reading.

Researchers at the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging found interesting results when they hooked up readers to a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. The researchers gave two test groups a passage from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. They asked one group to read as if they were reading for pleasure, and asked the other group to read the text closely, as if they were reading it for a literary criticism class. “The subjects were using completely different parts of their brains when reading the same passages, depending on whether they were reading them for fun, or for analysis.”

Most shocking of all, and detrimental to my argument that how I read is better than how Nic reads, is that neither way of reading is superior to the other. “Reading rigorously and analyzing the ideas presented and even the structure of the language and how the ideas are presented exercises one mode of functioning in our brains, and cultivates that mode. Reading just for the fun of it exercises another mode of functioning, and cultivates it. Both are necessary to see the world around us clearly, from a balanced point of view.”

What Nic and I can celebrate is that we both win. Many studies have shown that reading, whether it’s Wizard’s First Rule or The Grapes of Wrath, promotes biological changes within the body, can change how we act, how our brains connect and function, and how we empathize in social situations. Reading slowly can even reduce stress.

So as you read this month’s blog posts about bad and good writing, just remember one important thing: no matter what you read, you win.