The National Conversation: The Science of Reading – 31st August 2015.
In what could probably be described as ‘typical’, for the last day of Edinburgh Book Festival, and my last event, I felt absolutely horrible and had to bail about half way through. Having said that, the half I did catch was excellent, with a few minutes from each panelist, so on we go…
In the latest installment of the National Conversation, Charles Fernyhough, Nicola Morgan and Cathy Rentzenbrink talk about the mind’s response to reading, its influence on the wider world and other interesting trains of thought.
“Open a book and a chorus of voices start back at you,” begins Charles. He talks about hearing voices as people read and how it’s a deep mystery of consciousness when people to the watcher would just silently turn a page. “It’s interesting how reading for pleasure can have various effects.” One of these is the ability to literally hear voices in your head: “If reading is a pleasure, tuning into these voices must be part of the appeal.” A silent reader is doing more than processing text.
Charles talks of statistics from his own research, with some people citing “not hearing a voice is a sign that I wouldn’t get into a book.” Neuroscientists also say that direct speech (“I love you”) is experienced more vividly than reported (“she said she loved him”).
“One of the pleasures of fiction is the ability to make us wander off somewhere else. A mind that momentarily looks away from a book is anything but disengaged. The gorgeous moment of putting a book down because your mind is full of new unexpected wonders. I’m not here to tell you that reading books make you a better person,” he reinforces, “but we don’t need brain scans to tell us that reading is good for you.”
Nicola agrees with much of what Charles says, but has to raise a point at his final comment. “I love that a proper scientist backs intuition,” she begins, believing that feeling should be enough. “The problem is trying to promote reading for pleasure to schools, governments” and all those others who control the curriculum. “You need evidence.”
“Until recently I had to list the benefits we believe and feel exist,” she continues. “Now we have the evidence.” The Reading Agency have analysed hundreds of pieces of research and come up with 51 that show evidence-based positive outcomes of reading for pleasure. These include social skills, mood regulation, imagination – most of these, if not all, are also linked to the ideal conditions for learning.
In dealing with teens, they can turn away from books at a time where they may most need them; they need to be aware of the instant benefits, like feeling great or switching off from stress. “Relaxation is not a luxury,” she continues. “It’s a vital part of maintaining mental health.”
“Ivory tower discussion is not enough,” concludes Nicola. She’s talking to a room full of book lovers and readers, but this conversation needs to go so much further. “We have to engage with those who have not yet experienced reading for pleasure. They need to ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and find whatever answer they like.”
Cathy notes that her segment looks to be a conversation starter, not a string of definitive points. She begins with an online e-card shared by many people she loves online (right). She wants everyone to keep it in mind throughout.
She was an early reader, often made to read to classes above her at school. She was also chastised for saying she’d read books, with teachers saying “you can’t possibly have” or “sit back down and read it properly”. “I still find that really fascinating,” she notes.
But how does her excessive ability for reading help her job? Her dad didn’t learn to read until he was 30, and she’s grown to understand “why intelligent and creative adults might get to adulthood and not read and how that made them feel”. She’d understand coping strategies, like ordering last at restaurants and picking the same as someone else.
This connects her to people who cannot read, she’s no longer “the Lady of Letters” there “to throw books at them”, but she’s on of them in that she has experience of this. She didn’t release the extent to which people struggle with literacy until then; people are often told they’re not very clever, they have a difficult relationship with education. “Reading is my comfort zone,” she notes, but for reading “the pleasure has to be there and the fear has to be gone before the benefits come out.”
“I don’t think reading is better than other things,” Cathy adds. If someone likes football, she’d never say they should read instead. “I just want them to know that they can.” In returning to the image, she comes to reading and identity; her dad says that people don’t expect a man with tattoos to read a book. Instead of judging people on grammar and all other such literary points, she concludes, “I suggest that we don’t.”
One quick point is that despite agreeing with each other on several elements there’s numerous narratives at hand: how do you get one for funders and governments? “Science has a long way to go,” says Charles. “We’ve only just started.” There’s a lot of correlation, but nothing on causation. “We need better evidence. We can still learn about and enrich our own experience.”
“We need more research,” agrees Nicola. “We have an Education Secretary who has recommended pupils don’t choose art subjects. It goes right to the top. Whatever ammunition we have, we need to use it. We need to have more of it.”