To Self

Criticalness, reading, and the brain all go into a bar…

Key Takeaway: Not only can reading contribute to social responsibility and development, it’s actually also physiologically good for you! This is especially when critical reading is applied – and it goes hand-in-hand with critical thinking!


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If you’re familiar with Lumosity, you may be familiar with its never-ending advertisements that persuade you to upgrade to the full (and paid) experience. I’ve featured them here before as a nice and simple way to ensure your brain gets enough exercise regularly.

If you choose to subscribe to Lumosity emails, you’ll notice that many of the newsletters sent to your inbox feature some nice articles related to brain training and the like. Some are actually really, really interesting – and in line with what we here at TDA believe in.

Responsibility includes being responsible to yourself: it is irresponsible to be responsible for others or the planet at your expense (when we say “expense”, we talk health-wise, dignity-wise, and the like). And with responsibility comes the attitude to constant education, even outside the classroom. As the late Stephen R. Covey mentioned in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the seventh habit is to sharpen the saw – always keep on learning, and build your way up your purpose. Hence, the synchronization of Lumosity advocacy with our own: we go back to basics and sharpen ourselves – our minds.

Some time ago, I also wrote a post called “Lectione gaudium“, an English translation and update of a post I previously wrote in Filipino for university purposes. There, I spoke about the wonders of reading and how it can contribute to social responsibility and development. Today, we read a little more about reading – provided by Lumosity’s newsletter – and how it actually makes us “smarter”:

*The following content is taken from the newsletter of Lumosity dated 7 July 2015. The Daily Aloy does not hold copyright over it.*

What is the value of an English literature class — could you read on your own time and experience the same benefits? In a recent interdisciplinary collaboration between Stanford neurobiologists and assistant English professor Natalie Phillips, researchers used the Jane Austen classic Mansfield Park to investigate how the type of critical reading taught in most English classes may alter brain activation patterns.

Casual versus critical reading

As a longtime literary scholar, Phillips had always been interested in how reading literature could shape how people viewed the world. From anecdotal evidence, at least, it seemed as if the type of critical textual analysis taught in classrooms heightened attention when compared to casual reading.

To test this theory, Phillips and researchers from the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging used an fMRI machine to scan the brains of 18 participants as they read a chapter from Austen’s Mansfield Park. First, the participants were asked to read the chapter casually, as they would for fun. Then they were asked to switch to close reading, a common term for the type of scrutiny to detail and form required to analyze text in a literary course. To ensure that participants could successfully switch between these two modes of reading, all participants were PhD candidates pursuing literary degrees.

Researchers observed a significant shift in brain activity patterns as the PhD students went from casual to critical modes. Critical reading increased bloodflow across the brain in general, and specifically to the prefrontal cortex.

Executive function and the brain

The prefrontal cortex is known to play a role in executive function, which refers to a set of higher-order cognitive processes that manage how you divide your attention and coordinate complex activities. Phillips and her team posit that executive function may help explain the observed changes in participants’ brains.

This field of “literary neuroscience” is a new one, and Phillips hopes that these preliminary results will lead to further research on how reading can shape and shift cognition. Though it’s still too early to understand exactly what the future of this new branch of research holds, Phillips suggests that critical reading could one day be seen as a valuable tool in “teaching us to modulate our concentration.”

Critical thinking, as we know, is a critical (pun unintended) component of being responsible – by not judging a book by its cover, by taking the time to get to fully (or more fully, at least) know something before making pronounced judgments or educated responses to it. Critical reading, based on the above text, can essentially save our lives – and so we should practice it!

So let me tell you about the time criticalness, reading, and the brain all went into a bar together… (Comment below!)

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