In Mental Exercise, Variety Matters

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Only by embracing a wide range of intellectual challenges can we help our minds to be all they should, and can, be.

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In my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, I argue that scholars like N. Katherine Hayles, who distinguish between hyper and deep attention, are making things too simple. Instead, there are, I believe, at least two kinds of deep attention: the kind that we seek to have when we're reading to master information, and the kind that we have (often without really seeking it) when we are totally caught up in a story, "lost in a book."

Some recent research conducted at Stanford seems to confirm this argument:

In an innovative interdisciplinary study, neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars are working together to explore the relationship between reading, attention and distraction -- by reading Jane Austen.

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, the literary scholar leading the project.

During a series of ongoing experiments, functional magnetic resonance images track blood flow in the brains of subjects as they read excerpts of a Jane Austen novel. Experiment participants are first asked to leisurely skim a passage as they might do in a bookstore, and then to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam.

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." Blood flow also increased during pleasure reading, but in different areas of the brain. Phillips suggested that each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain that are "far more complex than just work and play."

Among other things, this research suggests that if we might do well to exercise various parts of our minds just as we do well to exercise various parts of our bodies. Otherwise we could end up like Charles Darwin, who felt that over time he had lost certain mental functions:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Fortunately for Darwin, there was one exception to this lost facility for enjoyment: "On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily --against which a law ought to be passed."

So if you want to keep the blood flowing through as many parts of your brain as possible, you need to read for fun, read for information, listen to music, look closely at art ... only by embracing a wide range of intellectual challenges can we help our minds to be all they should, and can, be.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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