While it's true that I read and enjoy a lot of mystery and thriller series, they are a bit like palate cleansers that I partake of between the heavier courses of my meal. But all of these "dishes," in my opinion, have their place in a balanced diet. They all contribute to a healthy, thriving mind and imagination.
There has actually been a considerable amount of scientific research done on the effects of reading on the brain. Researchers at Stanford University, in 2012, had their subjects read works of Jane Austen and they studied how the brain reacted during and after the reading. According to the literary scholar leading the project, they found 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.
They also studied the differences that resulted between leisurely skimming and close reading of a book and found there was some increase in blood flow during skimming but it affected limited parts of the brain, while a global increase in blood flow occurred during close reading. The conclusion drawn by the researchers was that paying close attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.
So, is that just a way of saying that reading literary fiction makes you smarter? Well, maybe.
If not smarter, then at least there is some evidence that it makes you more empathetic. It seems that when we identify with the characters in the books that we read and put ourselves in their shoes, we are learning to empathize with the real life people that we meet and to be more tolerant of their differences. For example, a study involving the reading of the Harry Potter books was able to show that identifying with the characters in those books helped to reduce prejudice.
Another study found that readers of literary fiction receive more of the empathetic benefits and improved mind function of reading than those who read pop-fiction or non-fiction. By the term “literary fiction” the researchers refer to a level of complexity in stories and their characters, rather than those genres that use more stereotypical characters and plots - like my beloved mysteries, for example.
What conclusions can we draw from this?
- Reading Jane Austen increases the blood flow in your brain.
- Skimming Jane Austen increases blood flow to some areas while close reading gives the benefit of more global flow.
- Accepting the diversity of characters in Harry Potter books can help one to be more accepting of diversity in real life.
- Of all the types of reading you can do, probably the most beneficial to the brain is literary fiction because the characters are more complex, ambiguous, and difficult to get to know. In other words, you have to work for it and that exercises your brain "muscles."
What you choose to read, then, does matter and the right words on a page can create vivid mental imagery and instill powerful emotions and maybe even make you smarter and more empathetic. They can make you think and thinking is good.